Time doesn’t actually slow down in a crisis

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn The Matrix, when an agent first shoots at Neo, his perception of time slows down, allowing him to see and avoid oncoming bullets. In the real world, almost all of us have experienced moments of crisis when time seems to slow to a crawl, be it a crashing car, an incoming fist, or a falling valuable.

Time doesn’t actually slow down in a crisisNow, a trio of scientists has shown that this effect is an illusion. When danger looms, we don’t actually experience events in slow motion. Instead, our brains just remember time moving more slowly after the event has passed.

Chess Stetson, Matthew Fiesta and David Eagleman demonstrated the illusion by putting a group of volunteers through 150 terrifying feet of free-fall. They wanted to see if the fearful plummet allowed them to successfully complete a task that was only possible if time actually moved more slowly to their eyes.

Bullet time

The task was deceptively simple. They merely had to read two numbers that were displayed on a wrist-mounted machine called a ‘perceptual chronometer’. Like a clunky digital watch, the device was programmed to show two numbers, but the catch was that the glowing digits were rapidly alternated with their negative images, where the area around the number is lit.

Perceptual chronometerAs the two images flicker more and more quickly, there comes a sudden point where they blur into a single uniform square of light. At this point, the rush of visual information overwhelms the brain of the volunteer, who is unable to resolve the two images apart.

The trio of researchers tuned the device to each volunteer’s threshold of resolution – the point where they only just failed to read the numbers. They reasoned that if a scary experience really made time slow down for the volunteers, even by a tiny amount, the flickering numbers should slow down enough to pop out of the blur. The effect should be like a slow motion camera, resolving the blur of a buzzing fly into individual wing beats.

To provide the necessary fear, Stetson took his volunteers up a SCAD tower (Suspended Catch Air Device) where they were strapped to a harness and dropped from a height of 150 ft onto a safety net. As they plummeted in free-fall, they had to try and read the numbers flashing from their wrists, while an eagle-eyed experimenter watched from the top to rule out those who kept their eyes completely shut.

SCAD tower taskTrick of memory

The volunteers failed. In fact, they read the numbers just as inaccurately as a control group who did the same task while staying on the ground. Neo, they weren’t. Unlike the slowed bullet-time of The Matrix, a person’s perception of events in time doesn’t speed up when danger looms.

However, the volunteers did have a distorted view of time during their fall. Before they ascended the tower, Stetson asked each volunteer to reproduce how long a compatriot took to hit the net using a stopwatch. They were then asked to do the same after they’d had a go themselves. On average, the volunteers estimated that own experience took 36% longer than that of their fellows. Time didn’t slow down – the volunteers just remembered that it did.

Stetson and co believe that people lay down richer, denser memories when they experience shocking events. These ‘flashbulb memories’ include emotional content, which involves the brain’s emotional centre – the amygdala (see this earlier post about flashbulb memories in 9/11 survivors). As these memories are played back, their unusual richness could fool the brain into thinking that the recorded events took up more time than was actually the case.

Reference: Stetson, C., Fiesta, M.P., Eagleman, D.M., Burr, D. (2007). Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event?. PLoS ONE, 2(12), e1295. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001295

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16 Responses

  1. That’s fascinating! I have been fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough not have experienced these sorts of terrifying experiences.

    I guess I shouldn’t try dodging bullets now, though.

  2. What never? Not even seen something happen to someone else? I, for example, vividly remember a car crash I saw on the motorway, which definitely seemed to happen in slow motion but must only have taken milliseconds.

    Also, I reckon the same sort of thing happens when you drop something valuable. It feels later like you had all the time in the world to reach out and catch it.

    Anyway, welcome to the site Ben.

  3. I could’ve told them that life isn’t a movie.

  4. this is a good thing to know. i shall stop dodging bullets now…i could be killed!

    but seriously…i rarely (if ever) recall slow-motion moments and I’ve been in a car accident, football injury (bully gave me a cheap shot that sent me flying 3 yards), various falls and tumbles, etc….maybe my brain chooses to forget rather then remember all the fine details….hmmm

    i still think i can dodge bullets!

  5. I don’t think your assumption that we all have experienced this at one time or another is true. Based on non-scientific polling I think it is more like half of us. Many people, when faced with dangerous trauma, actually experience the opposite, where time seems to accelerate beyond recognition. (e.g., “I don’t know what happened.”, “He came out of nowhere.”, “The shooting started and the next thing I remember is…”)

    But, of course, neither effect really changes the rate of time; merely our reaction to it. Only one time in my recollection did I face the time acceleration phenomenon. The rest of the times were more Matrix-like. Praise God for that.

  6. Fascinating

  7. V.interesting to see that some of you don’t actually experience the slow-down effect. Thanks for the comments folks.

  8. […] here at Not Exactly Rocker Science, I recently blogged about a study which showed (by pushing volunteers off a 150ft tower) that a person’s perception of time doesn’t really slow down in a crisis. Another post […]

  9. I am surprised. That time seems to slow down is the subjective experience: I have always accepted that it relates to attention. In high stress, adrenergic states one’s attention becomes acutely focused. Looking at numbers on a gauge when you are in fear of your life seems inane: who would care then about the number?

    Neuroplasticity argues for attentional recruitment so that processing should become faster, not because neurons individually can work faster, but because the brain is parallel processor par excellence.

  10. … would have been more credible if they could have stopped falling by correctly identifying the number….

  11. Hi,

    i have noticed when driving, and looking at the ‘motion blur’ of moving cars’ hubcaps- that if you blink, the wheels seem to freeze and you can make out the design of the hubcap! Has anyone else noticed this effect?

    http://shlogblog.blogspot.com/

  12. Shlog – that’s what we call a strobe. Strobe lights are commonly used when adjusting timing on a fan because you can stop apparent angular motion by only “seeing” at a certain frequency. I hope you aren’t driving while doing this. :)

  13. “I hope you aren’t driving while doing this.”

    is exactly what I thought ;-)

  14. BLINKFREEZING

    I think you’re completely wrong about this!

    …. my point was that it does seem to ‘freeze time’- and I’m not sure it IS the same phenomenon as a strobe.

    In the case of blinking, you can keep your eyes open afterwards and it doesn’t diminish the effect. A simple strobe just illuminates a brief period of time- so it’s much easier to explain than the “blink-freeze”.

    ok the wheels are spinning just the same- so why do you get a sensation of frozen time initially, before the wheel image becomes blurred? I suppose i’m wondering what the physiological/retinal basis of motion-blur is when the blinkfreeze shows that capturing the frozen image is at least possible.. maybe before the processors become overwhelmed by data!?

    Also, when i blink unconsciously my vision blacks out but my brain fools me into thinking it doesn’t!

    At least with deliberate blinking i’m aware of the (temporary) deficit…. so i think it would safer! .. unless you guys drive with your eyelids glued open?

  15. I played in a rugby match about two years ago where I saw with my mind’s eye what was going to happen. Then, in slow motion, it happened exactly as I had seen. For me the amazing thing was the slowing of time, rather than the foresight which I believe was probably just anticipation. I can vividly remember the experience but have not had a similar experience again, despite subsequently being in a car crash and still playing rugby. Even if it proves to be an illusion i would lovefor it to happen again.

  16. As for blinking, the brain will not register a different picture in its field of vision unless it is there for longer than 1/20th of a second. Because blinking is faster than this, the brain does not ‘see’ the darkness.

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