Neuroscience and Society

Time Perception and Neuropsychological Considerations in Human Dance

Anisha Mehta


Dancing emphasizes a precise system of geometric poses known as “positions of the body” [1]. Specifically, ballet dancers practice these positions and the motion between them, forming  fundamental “movements” of dancing [2]. Traditional ballet performance evaluation has always been personal due to its emphasis on the qualitative factors (lightness, grace, charm) of a dancer’s movement. It is also subjective since the critics of ballet have also received training, meaning that they know about its performance geometries as well [3]. This qualitative “input” of performance memory into a human critic creates bias [4]. In addition, ballet audiences who lack preexisting knowledge consistently feel a greater sense of restlessness and boredom, due to a lack of understanding and consequent apathy towards the discipline [5]. The level of contrast also relates to time perception as well. Contrast in dances are shown by movements that are noticeably different from anything seen regularly in the ballet piece. Generally, given the breadth of time perception and geometric variables assessed, most pairings of these variables would  produce at least a weak correlation [6]. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide a general understanding of how time perception, contrast, and dance relate to one another overall.


Time Perception and Contrast

Time perception is a topic within psychology and neuroscience that relies on subjective evaluation of time, which includes factors such as duration estimations, the “quickness” of time passing, and collective time experiences among cultural and linguistic groups [7]. While time perception is necessarily subjective and varies from one individual to the next, its trends for groups have been fueling  psychological research [5]. Additionally, in an academic paper titled “‘Time is bandwidth?’ Narrowing the gap between subjective time perception and Quality of Experience”, researchers Egger, Reichl, Hohfeld, and Schatz concluded  that time perception can serve as a measure of experience quality, especially in the context of using digital and visual media. This is also supported by the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in which author Csikszentmihalyi, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University and the “pioneer of flow,” wrote that flow states, or periods of a diminished sense of self and time, are responsible for positive appraisal of cultural events [3].

To continue,  existing literature provides that higher-contrast stimuli produce higher perceived durations due to a heightened sense of “originality” [8]. Typically, when two sensory environments are shown to participants in succession in equal durations, viewers will consider less time to have passed when the environments vary than stay  constant [1]. This is due to disrupted flow states and decreased familiarity, which both increase excitement.

Figure 1. These graphs demonstrate the neural mechanisms underlying time perception and reward anticipation. The graph on the left shows that the percentage of correct responses is the highest when time perception is accounted for and when a reward is present. The graph on the right shows that the reaction time is the lowest when time perception is accounted for and when a reward is present [1].


Dance and Time Perception 

Time perception in the context of dance is largely unexplored academically, but is often discussed in practice [3]. In dance, choreographers’ general intuition is that quicker and more “exciting” dances will seem longer, crafting a sense of  fulfillment for the performers  [9]. 

Nonetheless, some academic literature still exists. In “The Sense of Time” by Deinzer, Clancy, & Wittmann, the researchers staged two dance pieces with different speeds of movement, performed by a solo professional dancer [9]. A sample of fifty-two participants “watched both performances in counterbalanced order and rated their impressions, senses of self, and perceptions of space and time,” which was then evaluated empirically by the researchers through an immediate survey [9]. 

One unique feature of the study by Deinzer, Clancy, & Wittmann was its ecological validity. Ecological validity in psychology research is the extent to which a tested occurrence would happen in the participants’ real lives [9]. While “thousands” of time perception studies are conducted in extreme environments (i.e. a completely white room, a laboratory, etc.), “The Sense of Time While Watching a Dance Performance” study took place in an auditorium, under circumstances that were typical of dance performance (i.e. a group audience with a variety of non-dancers and dancers and aural stimuli) [9]. However, one limiting factor to its ecological validity was the absence of music, which was eliminated due to its potential interference with the perception of the choreography [9]. The cognitive mechanism for finding beats while viewing dance is similar to that of when listening to music because they are both based on common sensorimotor coupling (sensory information that is received and processed by the body’s neurological system and translated to produce coordinated muscle movement) [4]. 


Figure 2. Scales for measuring the sense of time [9]


Implications and Conclusions

These studies involved ideas such as  contrast’s relationship with time perception without the context of dance; dance’s relationship with time perception, but with regards to tempo instead of geometric fluctuations; and the role of attention to self and to certain characteristics of stimuli in time perception. The results of combining numerous studies  suggest a variety of relationships and applications. Some artistic applications of these findings can include:

1. A choreographer adapting the combinations of angles used in their work to affect audience attention and flow states [11]

2. A choreographer adjusting size and range of motion in their work to influence audience’s perception of time’s quickness and slowness [12]

3. A choreographer adjusting the symmetry of a solo piece (usage of left and right sides of the body) to minimize the amount of time felt by the audience [13]

Understanding the relationship between dance and time perception can aid in human unintentional bodily coordination, which is an “important aspect of human interaction in everyday life and for psychotherapeutic settings” [10]. Since this connects to the concept of subjective time, future studies assessing time perception in different real-life situations can be conducted as well. In this article, the choreographic changes described could alter the way that non-dancers view and appreciate dance altogether [3].



I would like to thank Dr. Mandeep Chahil, MD, for inspiring me to write this article and for taking the time to review it as well.


  1. Glicksohn, J., Berkovich-Ohana, A., Mauro, F., & Ben-Soussan, T. D. (2017). Time perception and the experience of time when immersed in an altered sensory environment. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. Page 8-11 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01348. Retrieved: 03/11/2020.

  2. Le Poidevin, R. (2019, May 10). The experience and perception of time. Plato Stanford. Retrieved: 16/09/2020.

  3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Claremont Graduate University. Retrieved: 03/10/2020.

  4. Su, Y., & Salazar-López, E. (2016). Visual timing of structured dance movements resembles auditory rhythm perception. PubMed. Pages 1-17. doi:10.1155/2016/1678390. Retrieved: 30/10/2020.

  5. Van Camp, J. (1986). The Humanities and Dance Criticism. CSULB. Retrieved: 19/02/2021.

  6. Doyle, C. L. (2017). Creative Flow as a Unique Cognitive Process. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. Page 8-11 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01348. Retrieved: 03/11/2020.

  7. LaViers, A., & Egerstedt, M. (2011). The ballet automaton: a formal model for human motion. Proceedings of the 2011 American Control Conference, Page 33-39 doi:10.1109/acc.2011.5991363. Retrieved: 16/12/2020.

  8. Glicksohn, J. (1992). Subjective time estimation in altered sensory environments. Environ. Behav. 24, 634–652. doi: 10.1177/0013916592245004. Retrieved: 22/11/2020.

  9. Deinzer, V., Clancy, L., & Wittmann, M. (2017). The sense of time while watching a dance performance. SAGE Open, 7(4), 1-10. doi:10.1177/2158244017745576. Retrieved: 21/10/2020.

  10. Baron, S. (2012). Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design. Gamasutra. Cognitive_flow_the_psychology_of_.php. Retrieved: 01/10/2020.

  11. Paskevska, A. (1981). Both sides of the mirror: The science and art of ballet. New York: Dance Horizons. Retrieved: 19/09/2020.

  12. Reason, M., & Reynolds, D. (2010). Kinesthesia, Empathy, and Related Pleasures: An Inquiry into Audience Experiences of Watching Dance. Dance Research Journal. 42(2), 49-75 Retrieved: 19/10/2020.

  13. Egger, S., Reichl, P., Hohfeld, T., & R. Schatz. (2012). “‘Time is bandwidth?’ Narrowing the gap between subjective time perception and Quality of Experience,” IEEE International. Retrieved: 27/01/2021.

  14. Wittmann, M., & Butler, E. (2017). Felt time: The psychology of how we perceive time. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved: 22/02/2021.

Anisha Mehta

Anisha Mehta

Hi! My name is Anisha and I am an aspiring physician. My interests include neuroscience, psychiatry, traveling, and classical dance!