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Preattentive timing of empty intervals is from marker offset to onset


  • This study is dedicated to the memory of W.C. Tse and was completed by C.Y. Tse, under the supervision of T.B. Penney, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Master of Philosophy degree at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. The authors thank Eric Ng for valuable assistance in data collection and Annett Schirmer for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. This project was supported by Grants 4322/01H and 4264/03H awarded to T.B. Penney by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong SAR.

Address reprint requests to: Trevor Penney, Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore, 11 Law Link, Singapore 117570. E-mail:


The internal marker hypothesis explains the superior timing performance for empty intervals over filled intervals by assuming that timing an empty interval starts from the offset of the first marker stimulus and stops at the onset of the second marker stimulus. Other models suggest that timing an empty interval is from first marker onset to second marker onset. We used an electrophysiological measure of preattentive change detection, the mismatch negativity (MMN), to examine processing of empty intervals. Participants watched a silent movie while a stream of auditory stimuli demarcating empty intervals was presented in the background. Most intervals were of the same duration (standards), but shorter intervals (deviants) were presented occasionally also. The pattern of MMN amplitudes obtained across five deviant conditions indicated that preattentive timing of empty intervals occurred from marker offset to onset.