Does Time Slow Down In A Crisis?

This week I’m banging on about time slowing down in a crisis.

Remember The Matrix? That old movie from way back in 1999, where Keanu Reeves wins a bunch of battles by slowing down time and casually dodging his enemies’ bullets before opening up a family-sized can of whoopass in their faces.

That dude Neo off The Matrix dodging bullets

In the real world, accident victims and people who have gone through a life-threatening event say that they experience a similar slowing down of time.

Ever been in a car crash? Come off your bike while doing a kickass jump? Got involved in a really bad street fight or wiped yourself out while snowboarding? I’ve done a few of those things – and I have the x-rays to prove it.


One of my snowboarding holiday snapshots 

When this stuff happens it seems like our lives go into slow motion and we can see every little detail unfolding in front of us.

But is that really the case?

Well, top brain boffin David Eagleman wasn’t convinced and wanted to work out a scientific way of proving it once and for all, one way or the other.

And he figured that the best way of doing this would be to throw people off the top of a tower, freaking the hell out of them while undergoing an experiment. Yup, that’s how proper science is performed. Aaah yeah.


Professor David Eagleman (can you see what I added to the photo??)

So what was our friend the crazy eagleman getting at? Anything? Or did he just like chucking people off high stuff?

He figured that if people actually see the world in slow motion when they’re under threat, then they should be able to see stuff that we can’t see under normal conditions.

Like in a slow motion sequence in a movie, when you watch a helicopter gunship and you can see the individual rotor blades spinning around, rather than just a blur. Or when you see a hummingbird slowed down on a nature program and you can see its wings moving up and down.

Eagleman heard about this crazy adrenaline kick called Suspended Catch Air Device diving (SCAD), a controlled free-fall system where people are dropped backwards off a high platform. There are no ropes involved and you hit speeds of 70mph during the fall. He gave it a go.


The crazy-ass SCAD tower. Aaaargh!

“It’s the scariest thing I have ever done,” said Eagleman. “I knew that it would be the perfect way to make people feel as though an event took much longer than it actually did.”

Anyways, Professor Eagledude got his head around this and invented what he called a ‘Perceptual Chronometer’, which was basically a huge stupid-looking retro watch that he strapped to the wrists of his freefalling science victims, mainly to make them look like dorks.


Tasty timepiece, A.K.A. Perceptual Chronometer 

But it had another function too.

The way it worked was by flashing a number and its negative image on the screen. He set the number flashing rate just a bit too fast so that people couldn’t read it under normal conditions.


Here’s how the flashing numbers work…

Then he chucked them off the SCAD tower.

He figured that if it seemed life-threatening and time slowed down, the flashing display on the watched would also look like it had slowed down and his willing victims would be able to read the numbers.

Don’t worry, he didn’t kill anyone. He had them fall into a safety net.

If they’d splattered on the ground then how would the king of the eagles been able to ask them if they’d seen the numbers? Duh.

He also had someone at the top of the tower watching to make sure that nobody shut their eyes in freefall. Those woosies were dropped from the experiment.

So, did time slow down and were the science victims able to see the numbers?

Nah, didn’t happen. Time still ran at the same speed and the numbers on the stupid watch were still a blur. There was no evidence of a fear-induced slowing down of time. Or, as the boffins like to call it, increased temporal resolution.

The odd thing is, after dropping a SCAD fall, people thought that it had lasted longer than it did, so the slowing down of time seemed to have happened.

This was measured by participants watching someone else take the freefall and then being asked to imagine being released from the top and falling through the air until they hit the net. At the moment when they pictured their release from the top, they were to press the start button on a stopwatch; at the time that they imagined hitting the net, they were to press the stop button, blind.

This was then repeated just after they’d dropped the SCAD, this time asking them to remember being released from the top and estimate how long it took until they hit the net.

Their duration estimates increased by an average of almost 40%. They also said that their fall had seemed to take a very long time.

So what’s going on? If time isn’t slowing down, why do we think it is?


That’s the Eagleman, monkeying with a Perceptual Chronometer like it’s 1985

Here’s our pal Eagle Dave to explain what the shiz is going on:

“It can seem as though an event has taken an unusually long time, but it doesn’t mean your immediate experience of time actually expands. It simply means that when you look back on it, you believe it to have taken longer,” Eagleman said.

Yup, we’re with you so far, prof, but why?

“We discovered that people are not like Neo in The Matrix, dodging bullets in slow-mo. It seemed to participants as though their fall took a long time. Time estimation and memory are intertwined: the volunteers merely thought the fall took a longer time in retrospect,” he said.

During a frightening event, a brain area called the amygdala becomes more active, laying 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.

So I guess that when you unpack all those memories and string them out in your brain, they look like a lot more than you’d expect, so you’re fooled into thinking that the more memories means the event took longer.

Here’s our friendly neighbourhood Eagleman to bring it all on home and put a bummer on your whole day:

“It’s 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.”

So, the take home here is that if you want your life to seem longer you gotta either keep being a child, keep putting yourself in life-threatening danger or do loadsa really weird stuff that keeps laying down rich memories from new experiences.

Me? I’m trying to tangle my way through a combination of all three.

Till next time, keep the rubber side down, monkey mush.

…oh, and don’t let your life flash by just like in this banned Xbox ad from 2002, enjoy:


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