Psychological distortion of Space & Time


There is a difference between perceived and actual space and time measures.

There are general factors that distort our estimation of distance and space: number of turns, density of structures in environment, familiarity of environment, attention and visual + dynamic cues (optic flow).



Our perception of space and time is based on our own mental representation of an environment. These estimates have been found to be systematically distorted by a multitude of factors.

One key factor that seems to affect these perceptions is our familiarity with the environment in question. Current research has found that we tend to under-estimate the time needed to travel through familiar environments while simultaneously over-estimating its size.



Path geometry: Brunec et al. (2017) found that when participants estimated the distance to travel towards a goal when circumnavigating different path-geometries (U-shaped or L-shaped), there was an overestimation of Euclidean distance to the goal. This was more apparent in the U-shaped paths. Therefore indicating an expansion of estimated Euclidean distance.

Familiarity: Jafarpour and Spiers (2017) found that with increased space familiarity, the estimates of sketched space (spatial estimations) expanded. The paper suggests that the expansion of space is potentially due to an increase in grid cell spacing (less grid units per meter).

Cues: A study looking at the contributions of static visual cues, non-visual cues and optic flow on distance processing/estimation found that in tasks where visual information was present, participants would overestimate the distance for shorter distances (10m) and under-estimate the actual distance for longer distances (20m). They also found that dynamic visual information (optic flow) would lead participants to underestimate their movement, resulting in an overestimation of the distance travelled.

Turns: Routes within a space that contain fewer turns/angle changes are perceived as being metrically shorter. This has led to suggestions that buildings should have straighter more direct routes and less extreme angle turns, particularly greater than 90 degrees.


Brunec et al. (2017) found that participants would under-estimate the time it takes to travel to the goal when circumnavigating different path geometries (U-shaped or L-shaped) — a contraction in estimated travel time.

Jafarpour and Spiers (2017) found that the estimated travel time (ETA) (temporal estimations) for more familiar paths was shorter, consistent with past research that familiar environments travel-times are underestimated. Suggests that highly familiar paths may become schematized over time therefore retrieval/recall of them requires less detail and cognitive demand leading to a contraction in ETA.

Underlying mechanism: The greater the time relevance of a journey, the more attentional resources used to track the time and therefore, a longer estimate of journey duration. Arriving to a goal/event tends to be more time relevant, while returning back is not, this results in the ‘return trip effect’ (the return journey seems shorter than the initial journey). Therefore estimated time of arrival (ETA) may be affected by attention.

Due to their being a dissociations between temporal and spatial estimations, research suggests there are seperate neural pathways representing each type of information OR a single neural pathway that processes the estimates differently within the hippocampal-parahippocampal regions.

Time perception is divided into two domains:

  • Prospective timing: This is where timing is an essential part of the task. Based on the attentional gate model, attention paid to duration closes a switch between an intrinsic pacemaker and pulse accumulator. Time is then estimated based on the pulses counted in the accumulator. Higher attentional resources used for processing temporal information results in a longer perceived duration of a task.

  • Retrospective timing: This is where you are asked unexpectedly the timing of an event retrospectively. Based on the contextual change model, memories of an event are segmented based on the number of contextual changes (defined as changes in cognitive processing) that occur in the event. We use these changes as temporal referents to estimate the perceived duration of the event. Segmentation of a memory determines the memory size. Therefore, the greater the segmentation of a memory, the greater the memory size and the longer the perceived duration of the event.



When determining route distances to and within buildings and places there are distinct elements that distort a persons perception of how long that might take. This can affect (a) willingness to do journey, (b) time calculated to arrive on time which if misjudged can cause stress and leave a negative experience in the mind of a person, for persons with physical differences this can be magnified as it can come with physical as well as mental stress.

This type of knowledge becomes increasingly important to people managing crowd flows, such as stadia developers and owners as well as travel facilities. Mitigating these risks prior to development can help improve adoption of new places. For existing places, it can help explain why there may be low turnout or low satisfaction scores from visitors.

Understanding what factors can manipulate our distortion of space and time will be an important consideration in design heuristics, particularly when nurturing a sense of place where we can mitigate against unwanted distortions of space and time.



Contracted time and expanded space: The impact of circumnavigation on judgements of space and time. Brunec IK, Javadi AH, Zisch FEL, Spiers HJ. 2017 -

Correction: The Return Trip Is Felt Shorter Only Postdictively: A Psychophysiological Study of the Return Trip Effect. Ozawa R, Fujii K, Kouzaki M. 2015

The Contributions of Static Visual Cues, Nonvisual Cues, and Optic Flow in Distance Estimation Hong-Jin Sun, Jennifer L Campos, Meredith Young, George S W Chan, Colin G Ellard, 2004 -

Familiarity expands space and contracts time. Jafarpour A, Spiers HJ. 2017 -

Navigating Complex Buildings: Cognition, Neuroscience and Architectural Design R.C. Dalton, C. Hölscher, H.J. Spiers. 2014 -