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Why we feel “slow motion” during crisis

Dec. 11, 2007
Courtesy Baylor College of Medicine
and World Science staff

Why does “time fly” as you get old­er? Why does it seem to slow down dur­ing a cri­sis? Re­search­ers say they may have found out.

In The Ma­trix, he­ro Neo wins bat­tles when time slows in the sim­u­lat­ed world. In real life, ac­ci­dent vic­tims of­ten re­port a si­m­i­lar slow­ing as they ca­reen to­ward dis­as­ter. While no one se­ri­ously claims time truly stretches out in such cases, some have sug­gested the feel­ing, at least, may be real. In oth­er words, may­be the brain con­cocts a sense of slow mo­tion, so that a pe­r­son in an emer­gen­cy can track events in more de­tail and re­act bet­ter.

Accident victims often report a sense of time slowing down. (Image courtesy U.S. Dept. of Transportation)


Sounds nice—but ap­par­ently it’s not so, if the lat­est study is cor­rect. 

The sensa­t­ion of time bog­ging down is just mem­o­ry play­ing tricks on you, say the re­search­ers, who probed how vol­un­teers ex­pe­ri­ence time when they free-fall 100 feet in­to a net.

Al­though par­ti­ci­pants re­mem­bered their own falls as hav­ing tak­en one-third long­er than those of oth­er peo­ple, they could­n’t see more events in time, the sci­en­tists said. The study ap­peared on­line Dec. 11 in the re­search jour­nal Pub­lic Li­brary of Sci­ence One.

“Does the ex­pe­ri­ence of slow mo­tion really hap­pen, or does it only seem to have hap­pened in ret­ro­spect? The an­swer is crit­i­cal for un­der­stand­ing how time is rep­re­sented in the brain,” said Da­vid Ea­gle­man of Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine in Tex­as, who led the stu­dy.

Ea­gle­man and two grad­u­ate stu­dents looked for a safe but har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence through which to put vol­un­teers. They hit up­on Sus­pended Catch Air De­vice div­ing, a sys­tem in which par­ti­ci­pants are dropped back­wards off a 150-foot high plat­form and land safely in a net. “Di­vers” reach 70 miles (113 km) per hour dur­ing the three-sec­ond fall. “It’s the scar­i­est thing I have ev­er done,” said Ea­gle­man—“the pe­rfect way to make peo­ple feel as though an event took much long­er than it ac­tu­ally did.”

The expe­ri­ment had two parts. In one, the re­search­ers asked par­ti­ci­pants to re­pro­duce with a stop­watch how long it took some­one else to fall, ver­sus how long their own fall seemed to have lasted. In gen­er­al, peo­ple es­ti­mat­ed their own falls as 36 pe­rcent long­er than those of fellow vo­lun­teers.

For the sec­ond part, the investigators de­vel­oped a de­vice called the per­cep­tual chro­nom­e­ter, to be strapped to vol­un­teers’ wrists like a watch. Num­bers flick­ered on its screen. The sci­en­tists ad­justed the speed at which the num­bers flick­ered un­til it was too fast for the di­vers to see.

They the­o­rized that if time pe­rception really slowed, the flick­er­ing num­bers would ap­pear slow enough for the di­vers to easily read while in free-fall. But they didn’t. “Peo­ple are not like Neo in The Ma­trix, dodg­ing bul­lets in slow-mo,” Ea­gle­man said. “The vol­un­teers merely thought the fall took a long­er time in ret­ro­spect.”

Dur­ing a fright­en­ing event, a brain ar­ea called the amyg­da­la be­comes more ac­tive, he ex­plained. It lays down a sec­ondary set of mem­o­ries that go along with those nor­mally tak­en care of by oth­er parts of the brain. “In this way, fright­en­ing events are as­so­ci­at­ed with richer and dens­er mem­o­ries. And the more mem­o­ry you have of an event, the long­er you be­lieve it took,” Ea­gle­man ex­plained.

Ea­gle­man and his team found fur­ther con­firma­t­ion in the lab­o­r­a­to­ry. In an expe­ri­ment that ap­peared in anoth­er re­cent is­sue of the jour­nal, they flashed on a com­put­er screen a se­ries of ob­jects that con­tained an “od­dball”: for in­stance, a shoe, a shoe, a shoe, a flow­er and a shoe. View­ers be­lieved the flow­er stayed on the screen long­er, though it was there the same amount of time as the shoes.

“This is re­lat­ed to the phe­nom­e­non that time seems to speed up as you grow old­er. When you’re a child, you lay down rich mem­o­ries for all your ex­pe­ri­ences; when you’re old­er, you’ve seen it all be­fore and lay down few­er mem­o­ries,” he re­marked. “There­fore, when a child looks back at the end of a sum­mer, it seems to have lasted forev­er; adults think it zoomed by.”


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Why does “time fly” as you get older? Why does it seem to slow down during a crisis? Researchers say they may have found out. In The Matrix, hero Neo wins battles when time slows in the simulated world. In real life, accident victims often report a similar slowing as they careen toward disaster. While no one seriously claims time truly stretches out in such cases, some have suggested that the feeling, at least, may be real. In other words, the brain concocts a sense of slow motion, so that a person in an emergency can track events in more detail and react better. Sounds nice—but apparently it’s not so, if the latest study is correct. The sensation of time losing steam is just your memory playing tricks on you, say the researchers, who probed how volunteers experience time when they free-fall 100 feet into a net. Although participants remembered their own falls as having taken one-third longer than those of the other study participants, they couldn’t see more events in time, the scientists said. The study appeared online Dec. 11 in the research journal Public Library of Science One. “Does the experience of slow motion really happen, or does it only seem to have happened in retrospect? The answer is critical for understanding how time is represented in the brain,” said David Eagleman of researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who led the study. Eagleman and two graduate students sought out a truly terrifying, but safe experience through which to put volunteers. They hit upon Suspended Catch Air Device diving, a system in which participants are dropped backwards off a 150-foot high platform and land safely in a net. “Divers” reach 70 miles (113 km) per hour during the three-second fall. “It’s the scariest thing I have ever done,” said Eagleman. “I knew it was perfectly safe, and I also knew that it would be the perfect way to make people feel as though an event took much longer than it actually did.” The experiment had two parts. In one, the researchers asked participants to reproduce with a stopwatch how long it took someone else to fall, and then how long their own fall seemed to have lasted. In general, people estimated that their own fall appeared 36 percent longer than that of their compatriots. For the second part, the researchers developed a device called the perceptual chronometer, to be strapped to volunteers’ wrists like a watch. Numbers flickered on its screen. The scientists adjusted the speed at which the numbers flickered until it was too fast for the divers to see. They theorized that if time perception really slowed, the flickering numbers would appear slow enough for the divers to easily read while in free-fall. They found that while the subjects were able to read numbers presented at normal speeds during the free-fall, they could not read them at faster-than-normal speeds. “People are not like Neo in The Matrix, dodging bullets in slow-mo,” Eagleman said. “The paradox is that it seemed to participants as though their fall took a long time. The answer to the paradox is that time estimation and memory are intertwined: the volunteers merely thought the fall took a longer time in retrospect.” During a frightening event, a brain area called the amygdala becomes more active, he explained. It lays down a secondary set of memories that go along with those normally taken care of by other parts of the brain. “In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories. And the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took,” Eagleman explained. A person’s perception of time is not a single phenomenon that speeds or slows, he added—”your brain is not like a video camera.” Eagleman and his team found further confirmation in the laboratory. In an experiment that appeared in another recent issue of the journal, they flashed on a computer screen series of objects that contained an “oddball”: for instance, a shoe, a shoe, a shoe, a flower and a shoe. Viewers believed the flower stayed on the screen longer, even though it remained there the same amount of time as the shoes. “This is related to the phenomenon that time seems to speed up as you grow older. When you’re a child, you lay down rich memories for all your experiences; when your older, you’ve seen it all before and lay down fewer memories. Therefore, when a child looks back at the end of a summer, it seems to have lasted forever; adults think it zoomed by.”