Alison Dennehy

Research group:
Cognitive Science
029 208 70475
58 Park Place

Research summary

When two events have a causal relationship (i.e. one causes the other), the interval between them seems shorter than that between two events that do not have a causal relationship.  This is known as ‘causal binding’, or alternatively ‘temporal binding’.  It is thought that this effect is a general distortion in our perception of time, whereby time appears to speed up in the interval between the two events that have a causal relationship.  My aim is to uncover the mechanism behind this effect and to place the phenomenon more directly into the established time perception literature. 

Teaching summary

2013 to present: Year 1 practical tutor. My role is to run tutorials for year 1 undergraduates on practical report writing and statistics, as well as marking their practical reports.

Full list of publications


Research topics and related papers

The purpose of causal binding is thought to be as a way of making it easier to learn the causal relationships between events that we encounter by making them appear to be bound closer together in time.  It is entirely plausible, therefore, that during a causal relationship we devote more attentional resources to the environment (to facilitate the learning processes), leaving fewer attentional resources to focus on the passage of time.

How attention relates to the perception of time has been studied extensively.  The general findings are that the more attention that is paid to the passage of time, the slower time seems to go and the less attention that is paid to time, the faster time seems to go (Brown, 1985).  This has often been explained by incorporating attention into the most commonly used internal clock model, the SET model (e.g. Gibbon, 1984).  This model proposes that there is a pacemaker-accumulator model of time perception, whereby there are pulses released by the pacemaker which are then counted in the accumulator.  Between these the pacemaker and the accumulator is a switch which closes to complete the circuit and allow pulses through, or opens to stop pulses passing through.  The number of pulses counted directly corresponds to the length of a perceived duration.  There are a number of factors that can influence the actions of the model, such as the speed of the pacemaker, the actions of the switch, and the amount of error in the counter.  Attention is thought to influence time perceptions via its effect on the action of the switch.  The more attention that is paid to time, the more the switch is closed (and/or the shorter the latency in the closing of the switch) and thus the more pulses are allowed to reach the accumulator leading to longer perceived durations.  Conversely, the less attention that is paid to the passage of time (and/or the longer the latency in the closing of the switch), the fewer pulses are allowed to reach the accumulator leading to shorter perceived durations.

A standard causal binding task includes two conditions: causal and non-causal.  In the causal condition, the participant presses a key which is then followed by a tone after a short delay.  In the non-causal condition, a click is played followed by the same tone after the same short delay.  The participant’s task is then to press a second key in time with the tone.  Since time is speeded up in the causal condition in comparison to the non-causal condition, participants will anticipate the tone as occurring earlier than it actually does.  This leads them to press the key before the tone is played.  In contrast, they will press the key later in the non-causal condition.

In my current research, in order to uncover if changes in attention are the process by which causal binding occurs, I aim to directly assess attentional processes during a causal binding task, using two different methods.  The first will be a behavioural task.  I will expect participants to perform better in a secondary attentional task in the causal than in the non-causal condition since, if they divert attention away from time and towards the environment, they will have more attentional resources available with which to perform the attentional task. The second will be pupillometry.  Pupillometry is used as a measure of attention, with the general finding being that the more attentional processes that are being used in a task, the more the pupils dilate.  Therefore, I will expect to see increased pupil dilation in the causal condition compared to the non-causal condition.


ESRC 1+3 Studentship

Research group

Cognitive Science

Research collaborators

Marc Buehner

Undergraduate education

2008 - 2011 BSc (Hons) Psychology, Cardiff University

Postgraduate education

2012 – 2013 MSc Social Science Research Methods, Cardiff University