How good are our senses at detecting temporal regularities?

Perceiving the temporal regularity in a sequence of repetitive sensory events facilitates the preparation and execution of relevant behaviors with tight temporal constraints. How we estimate temporal regularity from repeating patterns of sensory stimuli is not completely understood.

For this, we developed an irregularity detection task in which human subjects had to decide whether a train of sensory pulses was regular or irregular.

We tested the hypothesis that subjects categorize stimuli as irregular by accumulating the time differences between the predicted and observed times of sensory pulses defining a temporal rhythm.

Two competing decision variables represent evidence in favor of irregular (DVirr) or regular (DVreg) stimuli. The first decision variable to reach its threshold determines the trial’s choice and response time.

Results suggest that instead of waiting for a single large temporal deviation, participants accumulate timing-error signals and judge a pattern as irregular when the amount of evidence reaches a decision threshold. Model fits of bounded integration showed that this accumulation occurs with negligible leak of evidence. Consistent with previous findings, we show that participants perform better when evaluating the regularity of auditory pulses, as compared with visual or tactile stimuli. Our results suggest that temporal regularity is estimated by comparing expected and measured pulse onset times, and that each prediction error is accumulated towards a threshold to generate a behavioral choice.