The Three-Second “Subjective Present”: A Critical Review and a New Proposal

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It has been argued that there is a “subjective present” or “experienced moment” of about 3 seconds in duration, involving automatic binding of events into perceptual units on that time scale. Research on topics that have been taken as relevant to this proposal is reviewed. The topics include accuracy in reproduction of stimulus durations, synchronization of behavior with a regular beat, mental rhythmization of a regular beat, time units in behavior, segmentation of observed behavior into meaningful units, time scale of reversals of perception with bistable ambiguous figures, time scale of inhibition of return in visual search, and EEG responses to deviant stimuli in series of repeating stimuli. Most of the research findings were not consistent with the 3 s window hypothesis. The small amount of supportive evidence is better interpreted as effects of specific processing mechanisms, not as showing general temporal integration. The evidence shows that temporal integration occurs on multiple time scales and no particular duration is special, and that windows of temporal integration are defined in terms of information density, not in terms of duration. The subjective present is constructed through local temporal integration on multiple time scales, further integrated into a coherent global representation of what is going on.

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