Nov 01 2012

Temporal Binding

Skeptics should add another term to their lexicon of self-deception and cognitive biases – temporal binding.

Over the last half-century or so psychologists have been quietly documenting many various ways in which people deceive themselves and distort their thinking. This knowledge, however, has insufficiently penetrated the public consciousness. When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.

Skeptics have taken modern neuroscience to heart. Our philosophy incorporates what I call “neuropsychological humility” – the basic recognition that our brains are subject to a host of flaws and biases, and therefore we cannot simply rely upon what we remember about what we thought we experienced. Rather, we need to rely upon a rational process and objective evidence as much as possible (part of this is relying on rigorous science to form our empirical conclusions). These flaws and biases are not confined to parlor tricks, contrived psychological experiments, and sitting in the audience of a magic show, but apply in everyday life.

Temporal binding is one tiny slice of the cognitive biases that form our everyday thinking. The overarching concept is that our memories are not passive recorders, nor are they primarily focused on the accurate recall of details. We do have a memory for details, but we also have a thematic memory, which seems to predominate. The thematic memory remembers the meaning of events, and then details are altered to fit this meaning. We construct a narrative and then over time our memory increasingly fits that narrative. This is not a conscious or deliberate process – our memories just morph over time. We are not aware of this process, nor can we distinguish an accurate memory from one that has morphed completely out of alignment with reality. They are both just memories.

Temporal binding is one manifestation of this general phenomenon, and is related to the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. We tend to assume that if A precedes B then it is likely that A caused B. The logical fallacy is in assuming that A did in fact cause B without adequate independent evidence, merely because of the temporal association.

It seems that we evolved to make this assumption. Often A precedes B because it did cause it, and apparently there is a survival advantage to assuming that A probably did cause B, rather than being skeptical of this fact This is a manifestation of another general rule of cognition, that of heuristics. We tend to make quick down and dirty assumptions (cognitive rules of thumb) that are true most of the time, but not all the time and are not strictly logical. Another way to look at this is that the survival disadvantage of a false positive is significantly less than that of a false negative – it’s better to assume the rustling in the bushes is a tiger and run away, than to be skeptical and check it out.

Temporal binding is a phenomenon that reinforces that assumption of cause and effect once we have linked two events causally in our minds. The effect biases our memory so that we remember the apparent cause and effect occurring closer together in time. In experiments we tend to remember the cause as happening later and the effect happening earlier.

I encounter this frequently in my medical practice. Patients giving the history of their illness will often recall that a certain symptom began immediately after some event that they believe is causal. What appears to happen frequently is that people search for a possible cause of their new symptoms, they find some event that is most temporally related, and then over time their memory morphs so that the alleged cause and their symptoms become closer and closer in time. Sometimes patients even flip the order and place the apparent cause before their symptoms.

I know this happens because I have a written medical record against which to compare the patient’s recall. The vast majority of the time the patient’s recall does not match the objective record. For example, I may have a record of them reporting their symptom to another physician prior to the event that they now believe caused their symptom.

A recent pair of psychological studies shows that the phenomenon of temporal binding is likely more generalizable that previously thought. Some researchers believed that this cognitive bias applied only to effects that we intentionally caused. Researcher Marc Buehner, however, believed that it applies more generally. He conducted two experiments in which participants were able to press a button which was followed by a target light. In one case they pressed the button, and in another a machine pressed the button. In both cases the phenomenon of temporal binding – remembering the two events as being closer together than they were – was seen. Buehner concludes that intentionality is not required for temporal binding to reinforce our perception of cause and effect.


Skeptics like to combine two aphorisms as part of their core philosophy – knowledge is power and know thyself. Knowledge of how our brains function, including all the flaws and biases, is essential for clear thinking. Our brains are our universal tools of understanding the world and there is nothing, in my opinion, more empowering than understanding how that tool works.

Temporal binding is just one small example of how our brains distort our perception and memory of events to fit a story, a causal narrative, that we constructed in our minds. The trick is to apply this knowledge to yourself in your everyday life. Our cognitive processes are biased (that includes you), and we make these errors every day. So don’t rely on your feelings or memories. Think critically and rely on the most objective information possible.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Temporal Binding”

  1. ccbowerson 01 Nov 2012 at 11:18 am

    ‘When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.’

    The lack of awareness of the general public on this topic is so poor that being aware of these issues, even as mere quirks would be progress. Armed with that basic knowledge, it seems at least possible to demonstrate how our perceptions and memories are biased. It is a difficult topic to discuss with people since often the very basics need to be introduced, which often prevents the conversation from progressing.

    Its not just that our perceptions and memories can’t be trusted, but that they are biased in systematic and often predictable ways. Knowing how they are biased helps us make better decisions and judgements in utilizing what we remember. Over time our memories become more like stories or lessons we tell ourselves about our past experiences.

    Only slightly related to this, but it made me laugh: I was just listening Jon Ronson who was a guest on Point of Inquiry, and during a discussion about confirmation bias he said “the more I think about confirmation bias, the more I see it everywhere.”

  2. tmac57on 01 Nov 2012 at 12:48 pm

    After just going through a mini health crisis,and having to try to reconstruct a series of symptoms and their temporal order for my doctor,I can appreciate the confounding nature of this problem.Even though these events happened within the last couple of weeks or so,it was tricky to place them confidently in order,but maybe I would have been more (unwarrantedly) confident if I wasn’t already aware of my own susceptibility to post hoc reasoning.That awareness made me much more cautious when relating my symptoms to my doctor.
    I think that it would be a really good idea to keep a ‘health’ journal to document out of the ordinary health events,especially as you get older,and are more apt to experience problems.You tend to think that you can rely on your memory,but my experience is that you may not be able to,and that might be valuable information that gets lost or distorted.

  3. Bronze Dogon 01 Nov 2012 at 1:28 pm

    We really need to find a way to get basic ideas like this more widely accepted. Everyone’s experienced some failure or another of their memory, but many don’t take it to heart. I’ve had a lot of arguments where I keep trying to hammer in the idea that faulty memories are why we don’t trust anecdotes, but to no avail.

  4. ccbowerson 01 Nov 2012 at 1:54 pm

    “I’ve had a lot of arguments where I keep trying to hammer in the idea that faulty memories are why we don’t trust anecdotes, but to no avail.”

    This is related to what I was trying to say above. The problem is that introducing such concepts during a real senario often makes a person defensive, as if you are doubting them personally, since people’s intuitions about how the mind works are generally wrong. People often view their own memories are little movies about what happened, and that they fade or get fuzzy like a poor recording of the event, instead of more correctly viewing their memories as reconstructions based upon a narrative they have created about the event

  5. elmer mccurdyon 01 Nov 2012 at 2:02 pm

    One logical conclusion of all this is that anything I might say about whether a particular treatment did or did not help is completely meaningless, which makes me wonder what a certain individual would hope to prove if he succeeded in harassing me into admitting that nothing I’ve tried has been of any help whatsoever, as he has been rather obsessively trying to do for the last several years on the various blogs where I’ve posted using this name or others; although he never deigns to speak to me, he does like to drop clues, and I’m fairly certain that Davdoodles is the individual in question and that he is the author of the email discussed in the previous post, and strongly suspect that tmac57 and ferrousbueller are the same individual; presumably there is some sort of objective method by which Dr. Novella could check this? I would say that the only relevance that this might have to medical issues would be in the area of mental health; i.e. either he or I is/am a complete lunatic. I lean more toward the former conclusion, although I suppose they’re not mutually exclusive.

  6. elmer mccurdyon 01 Nov 2012 at 2:34 pm

    In any case, even Dr. Novella (unless I my memory is deceiving me) has admitted that some memories are more trustworthy than others; he gives the example of a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, which is repeatedly reinforced. The reason that he would give special credence to this sort of knowledge seems fairly obvious, but I imagine he’s correct. Therefore I should think it would be useful to try to detail the various ways for ascertaining how likely memories or subjective perceptions are to be correct, rather that just reiterating evidence that they are not 100% trustworthy.

    It would also be useful to determine whether there are reasonable reasons that good quality objective evidence is lacking in those cases where it is.

  7. tmac57on 01 Nov 2012 at 5:11 pm

    elmer mccurdy- I assure you that I am not ferrousbueller (except on my days off…I don’t comment on those days).

  8. nybgruson 01 Nov 2012 at 5:57 pm

    This knowledge of how the brain works helps my life immensely in two very, very, very important ways.

    1) When I teach lower classpeople (PC term here;-) the USMLE I tell them to weave the the facts of the system/physiology/etc into a story. I make the analogy of an opera. Learn what the opera is about – the general story arc and major themes and sub plots. Then start learning the names of the characters. Then start learning some of the minor themes and sub plots. And finally you can learn the dialogue. I find this method helps immensely when trying to learn vast amounts of knowledge in order to apply them to either board exams or patients. If you can’t remember the character’s name, or how the character relates to other parts of the story, you can at least remember that there should be a character and an interaction and you can then look it up on your smartphone (for patients… they don’t allow those in board exams).

    2) When I get into an intense argument with my fiance, I am much more at ease and comfortable admitting that my memory may have been faulty, that the narrative I had may not have been entirely accurate, and that even if it were it may not reflect hers. It leads to mutually beneficial resolution without lingering resentment that I had to “admit I was wrong” or keep tally of who won more arguments. I accept that my brain is faulty and that outcomes are more important than determining if it was my brain, hers, or both that stuffed up. She is not quite as well versed on these topics as I am, but understands and accepts the fundamentals so she is also quite willing to apologize and admit her own irrationality when the need comes.

    There are more benefits to skepticism and an understanding of the shortcoming of the human brain than just debunking CAM and religion.

  9. elmer mccurdyon 01 Nov 2012 at 9:50 pm

    I should not have done that, but it’s done.

    Head games make me mad.

  10. elmer mccurdyon 01 Nov 2012 at 10:05 pm

    I apologize, for what it’s worth.

  11. BillyJoe7on 02 Nov 2012 at 7:45 am

    Ferrous beuller’s day off! 🙂
    But no, it was me, elmer, or have you forgotten? 🙂

  12. stereoblueon 03 Nov 2012 at 11:46 am

    I’ve definitely experienced this in a variety of situations where I would start blaming some event or person for something (just in my mind) and then after carefully evaluating it realizing that the starting point was earlier and thus my blame was misplaced. The funny thing is that even after realizing that that cause was earlier, my brain would still try and construct the evidence toward the first conclusion rather than the corrected second conclusion, and I have to continually remind myself of the actual order of things.

    All that is a bit vague. A recent (minor) example was getting sick on vacation. I was blaming the crappy hotel bed, the smoke-filled clubs, the airplane ride etc. Only after thinking about it for awhile did I realize that I had been waking up with a scratchy throat for days prior to actually having uncomfortable symptoms and before the flight/bed/club. I had somehow forgotten that I was likely fighting off the illness for days. Now, I’m sure smoky clubs don’t help my immune system at all, but you get the point.

    And, like I said, even after realizing that my illness most likely started days before, I would still find myself gravitating toward the flight/bed/club hypothesis and would have to remind myself that no, the illness began days earlier.

  13. goldfinchon 04 Jun 2015 at 8:19 pm

    An old post, but I’ll add my comment to the either as temporal binding dramatically changed my life for the worse.

    My husband would complain about hand pain and his GP said he should see a specialist. He put it off for a long time. Finally he went to a neurologist who did some testing. This neurologist had a reputation for being an asshole with no people skills. We didn’t know that at the time. The neurologist did an EMG and some other tests, my husband’s arm hurt a lot during the tests. When his arm would jump the neurologist and his assistant laughed.

    My husband went home in pain and the pain did not go away. He had surgery on both arms and elbows. The surgeon said after some physical therapy that there was so much muscle loss there was no point to PT.

    My husband began to believe that the neurologist caused the nerve damage in his elbows and hands. I said it didn’t make sense, he had trouble earlier. I was accused on not believing him. He said it was like he was raped and I wouldn’t believe his rape story.

    It almost ended in divorce. Our relationship, even years later, has never been the same.

    Oh, the neurologist ended up with a much more public reputation as an asshole when he sued a patient’s son for giving him a negative review. For basically calling him an asshole.

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