The Sense of Time Continuity. Is There a Problem?


Intuitively, we have the impression that we are in direct contact with the outer world, associated with a feeling of immersion. Consistent with this impression, conscious experience appears to us as being continuous, matching the continuity of physical time. However, several studies favor discrete theories of perception over continuous theories. Also the sense of time continuity appears to be disturbed in pathologies like schizophrenia, associated with a disruption of the sense of self, and of the feeling of being immersed in the world. In this symposium we will provide evidence supporting the idea that the mechanisms underlying the conscious flow are not as continuous as we believe; we will specify what happens at a conscious andnon-conscious levels, and we will discuss associated models. Marc Wittmann will explore the subjective experience of time flow, and will focus on those experiences where the sense of time emerges spontaneously, i.e. when we have to wait. The two following presentations will focus on the question of time continuity at the sub-second level. Michael Herzog will show evidence that conscious visual processing is discrete rather than continuous, and will propose a two-step model, in which only the non-conscious level is ‘quasi’ continuous. Anne Giersch will present results in patients with schizophrenia, and argue that the sense of time continuity requires automatic predictions of sensory events to guide attention. Finally Carlos Montemayor will discuss dual models postulating a distinction between automatic and cognitive timing.    


Workshop presenters


Anne Giersch (chair)

Department of Psychiatry                                                       

University Hospital of Strasbourg, France


Michael Herzog

Brain-Mind Institute

EPFL Lausanne, Switzerland


Carlos Montemayor

Department of Philosophy

San Francisco State University, Daly City, USA


Marc Wittmann

Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health

Freiburg, Germany



Anne Giersch

Lack of Sense of Immersion and Time Continuity in Schizophrenia: Arguments for an Interaction between Non-conscious and Attention Mechanisms


Timing disorders are not part of the diagnosis criteria for schizophrenia, but have been hypothesized decades ago, and related to bodily self disorders. Yet, timing disorders have been explored experimentally only recently. The results show impairments at detecting asynchronies and ordering stimuli, suggesting distortions in the temporal structure of consciousness. The amplitude of the impairments led us to explore timing at a non-conscious level. We showed that in healthy subjects events are distinguished in time automatically even when subjectively judged as being simultaneous. Data suggest that sequences of future visual information are predicted and allow subjects to allocate attention in the right place and right time. This would help to follow visual events fluently and check predictions. Either sensory events confirm the prediction or yield a prediction error, but there is no room for a time gap to be perceived. Conversely, data suggest that time prediction is impaired in patients with schizophrenia with bodily self disorders, and especially the production of sequences at the millisecond level. We will argue that a close synergy between non-conscious prediction of sequences and attention is necessary for the sense of immersion in the environment and the feeling of time continuity to emerge.



Anne Giersch (MD PhD) is a trained psychiatrist and experimental psychologist. Now researcher in the French institute for medical research (INSERM), she heads a laboratory in Strasbourg aimed at understanding the pathophysiology of schizophrenia by means of cognitive neuropsychology and psychophysics. Her research was initially focused on distortions of visual perception induced by drugs and schizophrenia. It is now focused on time issues. Anne Giersch tries to find out whether resolving the time continuity question will help patients with schizophrenia.   



Michael Herzog, Leila Drissi Daoudi, Adrien Doerig 

Quasi-Continuous Unconscious Processing Precedes Discrete Conscious Perception


Consciousness appears to be a smooth, continuous stream of percepts: we are aware of the world at each single moment of time. However, continuous conscious perception is challenged by phenomena such as apparent motion, in which two static disks are presented one after the other but a smoothly moving disk is perceived. Apparent motion and similar phenomena favor models of discrete consciousness: we consciously perceive the world only at certain moments of time, preceded and followed by windows of unconscious processing. Usually, the sampling rate of discrete percepts is determined by temporal resolution: if we cannot perceive two flashes of light presented 40ms after each other, discrete sampling cannot be faster than 40ms. However, experiments found sampling rates ranging from 3ms to 300ms. Obviously, there seems to be something wrong with discrete perception, too. Here, we propose a two-step model, in which a quasi-continuous unconscious processing stage with a high temporal resolution precedes conscious discrete perception, occurring at a much lower rate, in the range of 400ms. We provide evidence for this model from a set of trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and visual masking experiments. Finally, we show why continuous consciousness is conceptually problematic. 



Michael Herzog studied Mathematics, Biology, and Philosophy at the Universities of Erlangen, Tübingen, and the Institute of Technology (MIT). Since 2004, he is a professor for psychophysics at the Mind Institute (BMI) at the EPFL in Lausanne (Switzerland). His research interests comprise many aspects of visual processing, such as spatio-temporal vision and non-retinotopic processing, in the healthy population but also schizophrenia, the older population, and sports(wo)men. In addition, Michael has a keen interest in epistemology and consciousness.  



Carlos Montemayor

Time Cognition and Perception: A Dual Model


Multiple studies show that time perception is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. This talk analyzes the implications of approaching the findings on time cognition and perception from a dual model perspective. According to this approach, some aspects of time perception must be understood as direct mappings of the environment, while other aspects must be understood as temporal integration, conceptualization, or reasoning. The talk will focus on the impact of language on time cognition, and explain why a limited influence of language explains many aspects of time cognition, including memory. Issues about the evolution of linguistically formatted types of temporal cognition will be examined, especially the possibility of uniquely human types of temporal cognition. Finally, the implications of the dual model of time perception for the study of consciousness will be assessed according to a theoretical categorization that includes unconscious, agential, and phenomenally conscious components. The main proposal in this concluding part of the talk is that only some aspects of time perception are phenomenally conscious.



Carlos Montemayor is Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University, USA. His research focuses on philosophy of mind and cognitive science. He is the author of Minding Time: A Philosophical and Theoretical Approach to the Psychology of Time (Brill, Netherlands, 2013), co-author (with Harry H. Haladjian) of Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention (MIT Press, 2015) and co-author (with Abrol Fairweather) of Knowledge, Dexterity, and Attention: A Theory of Epistemic Agency (Cambridge University Press, 2017). 



Marc Wittmann

Living Through Time as an Embodied Self: The Experience of Time, Boredom, and Flow


Based on conceptual considerations in neuroscience and phenomenology, interoceptive and affective states create the experience of time. In the majority of experimental studies only the time range of milliseconds to a few seconds is assessed. However, only during longer time intervals we can refer to lived time as embodied self-experience, as emotional and motivational state of the human condition. I will present a series of empirical investigations where we tried to capture individuals’ experiences of time, self, and emotion during a variety of empty and filled time intervals in the multiple-minute range. Different groups of participants were exposed to real waiting situations, watched two different dance performances, participated in instructed meditation sessions, and were exposed to ganzfeld stimulation. Trait-related differences in impulsivity and time orientation as well as state-related variables of relaxation and boredom determine the experience of time in ordinary waking consciousness. Stronger present-oriented impulsivity as trait leads to more irritation and boredom while waiting which expands subjective duration. More cognitive and emotional self-control leads to more positive affect while waiting and in turn to a faster passage of time. Moreover, the felt immersion during altered states of consciousness can lead to a faster passage of time and in individual cases to a feeling of timelessness and selflessness.



Marc Wittmann is employed at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, Freiburg, Germany. He studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and the University of Munich, Germany. He received his Ph.D. (1997) and his Habilitation (2007) at the Institute of Medical Psychology, Medical School, University of Munich. Between 2004 and 2009 Marc Wittmann was Research Fellow at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego, USA. He is the author of the MIT Press books Felt Time (2016) and Altered States of Consciousness (2018).