Friday, December 16, 2016

Why does time seen to slow down in moments of danger?

What I was experiencing at that moment was a psychological phenomenon know as subjective time dilation — the strange temporal elasticity that so often accompanies moments of acute danger. The sensation was immortalized in the scene in The Matrix when Neo is able to perceive the passage of bullets through the air around him. ...

But how, exactly, does your brain slow down time? Maybe the same way a machine does. When you take a slow-motion video with your phone, it ramps up the rate at which frames are recorded, then plays them back at the standard number of frames per second. To find out if the brain takes the same approach, researchers at Baylor and the University of Texas enlisted volunteers who were willing to subject themselves to a nerve-shattering experience called the Suspended Catch Air Device at the Zero Gravity amusement park in Dallas. The participants were strapped into a harness, then dropped from a 150-foot-high tower. After a 2.5 second free fall, a net stopped their descent.

To ascertain whether adrenaline made their brains speed up, the scientists had invented a wrist-mounted device they called the “perceptual chronometer.” The LED display shows pairs of numbers. If the numbers are set to change more quickly than a person’s mind can perceive, he or she will see only a blur. The scientists set the perceptual chronometer’s flicker rate just beyond what their subjects could perceive when calm. If the intense fear of free fall ramped up the subjects’ perception rate, they should be able to discern the numbers.

As instructed, the subjects looked at the device as they fell. (For the most part — one subject was so terrified she kept her eyes clamped.) They saw — a blur. They were no better able to discern the numbers in free fall than they were when safely on the ground.

What this tells us is that our brains don’t speed up when we’re in danger. Instead, the rush of fear hormones causes the brain to retain richer memories of what’s happening. ...

Since the brain estimates the passage of time by how much information is stored within a given interval, richer memories make it feel like more time has passed.
--Jeff Wise, New York, on the fact that you are not Neo