The Jeff Wise Blog

How the Brain Stops Time

One of the strangest side-effects of intense fear is time dilation, the apparent slowing-down of time. It’s a common trope in movies and TV shows, like the memorable scene from The Matrix in which time slows down so dramatically that bullets fired at the hero seem to move at a walking pace. In real life, our perceptions aren’t keyed up quite that dramatically, but survivors of life-and-death situations often report that things seem to take longer to happen, objects  fall more slowly, and they’re capable of complex thoughts in what would normally be the blink of an eye.

Now a research team from Israel reports that not only does time slow down, but that it slows down more for some than for others. Anxious people, they found, experience greater time dilation in response to the same threat stimuli.

An intriguing result, and one that raises a more fundamental question: how, exactly, does the brain carry out this remarkable feat?

Researcher David Eagleman has tackled his very issue in a very clever way. He reasoned that when time seems to slow down in real life, our senses and cognition must somehow speed up—either that, or time dilation is merely an illusion. This is the riddle he set out to solve. “Does the experience of slow motion really happen,” Eagleman says, “or does it only seem to have happened in retrospect?”

To find out, he first needed a way to generate fear of sufficient intensity in his experimental subjects. Instead of skydiving, he found a thrill ride near the university campus called Suspended Catch Air Device, an open-air tower from which participants are dropped, upside down, into a net 150 feet below. There are no harnesses, no safety lines. Subject plummet in free fall for three seconds, then hit the net at 70 miles per hour.

Was it scary enough to generate a sense of time dilation? To see, Eagleman asked subjects who’d already taken the plunge to estimate how long it took them to fall, using a stopwatch to tick off what they felt to be an equivalent amount of time. Then he asked them to watch someone else fall and then estimate the elapsed time for their plunge in the same way. On average, participants felt that their own experience had taken 36 percent longer. Time dilation was in effect.

Next, Eagleman outfitted his test subjects with a special device that he and his students had constructed. They called it the perceptual chronometer. It’s a simple numeric display that straps to a user’s wrist, with a knob on the side let the researchers adjust the rate at which the numbers flash. The idea was to dial up the speed of the flashing until it was just a bit too quick for the subject to read while looking at it in a non-stressed mental state. Eagleman reasoned that, if fear really does speed up our rate of perception, then once his subjects were in the terror of freefall, they should be able to make out the numbers on the display.

As it turned out, they couldn’t. That means that fear does not actually speed up our rate of perception or mental processing. Instead, it allows us to remember what we do experience in greater detail. Since our perception of time is based on the number of things we remember, fearful experiences thus seem to unfold more slowly.

Eagleman’s findings are important not just for understanding the experience of fear, but for the very nature of consciousness. After all, the test subjects who fell from the SCAD tower certainly believed, as they accelerated through freefall, that they knew what the experience was like at that very moment. They thought that it seemed to be moving slowly. Yet Eaglemen’s findings suggest that that sensation could only have been superimposed after the fact. The implication is that we don’t really have a direct experience of what we’re feeling ‘right now,’ but only a memory – an unreliable memory – of what we thought it felt like some seconds or milliseconds ago. The vivid present tense we all think we inhabit might itself be a retroactive illusion.

Filed under: Extreme Fear

13 Responses

  1. Jessica says:

    What a brilliant experiment! So beautifully simple with such a profound result. I’m going to have to give that concept some more thought…

  2. Finn says:

    Interesting though is an amusement park adrenaline rush really strong enough to measure fear? This experiment is very interesting.

    Is this at all related to psycho-motor dysfunction (i think that’s the name for it). When someone who, for instance, has PTSD appears to be moving in slow motion from everyone elses perspective?

    • Jeff Wise says:

      Hi Finn, thanks for the comment. It’s a good point — an amusement park ride seems like it shouldn’t be as terrifying as, say, getting attacked by a bear. To address this issue, Eagleman first asked his subjects to estimate how long their drop took, using a stop watch. This after-the-fact estimate was, on average, significantly longer than the falls actual duration, leading Eagleman to conclude that time dilation had been in effect.

  3. Ryan says:

    What if your thinking on too large of a scale. 3 seconds is a long time for a reaction inside the body. Have you thought about that?

    • Jeff Wise says:

      Yes, three seconds is a very long time, in terms of the brain’s fear response. An automatic response to a stimulus can take place in milliseconds; it takes about half a second for the conscious mind to register what is happening. So three seconds should be plenty of time for the subjects to carry out their display-reading task in the experiment.

  4. […] I’ve written before, in the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in different and unexpected ways. Sometimes these are positive, other times not. For one thing, the […]

  5. […] I’ve written before, in the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in different and unexpected ways. Sometimes these are positive, other times not. For one thing, the […]

  6. George says:

    Perhaps intense fear is not the only stimulus for such a time-warp. How about intense excitement? As a total rank amateur tennis player, sometimes (not often enough) I see the ball seem to slow down abnormally and my time to react seems abundant. But that’s when I’m keyed up, excited, mentally strong. Other times I do not perceive that bonus time. If so, I wonder the phenomenon is an intrinsic part of star athletes’ performance.

    • Jeff Wise says:

      Yes, absolutely — like fear, excitement is a kind of psychological arousal that prepares the mind and body for quick reaction to the outside world. I have heard of athletes having extremely fast reflexes — for instance, Ted Williams was famous for this — but I’m not sure if it was due to this effect or some anatomical feature of his brain. I’ll look into it!

  7. […] Write: “How Fear Stopped Time” Recently, I wrote about how extreme fear distorts our perception of time, causing it to seemingly move in slow […]

  8. techvirtuoso says:

    I have had this experience of slowed time, but it actually allowed me to react quicker than I would normally do so. This generally happens with an adrenaline rush. I have always thought that the adrenaline caused the brain to process more data in the frontal cortex.. Normally we filter out most of our surroundings in the conscious mind. In some cases, such autism or drugs, and even some geniuses, the amount of data processed through the frontal cortex is much higher than most people. The adrenaline may cause a temporary increase in sensory awareness, making it seem like time is slowing because we are perceiving more data with the conscious mind. In the experiment, people had heightened awareness, but were not in fear of their lives, limiting the amount of data passed through. I am sure you will find some people more susceptible to this type of time dilation.

  9. […] response to my post “How The Brain Stops Time,” more than 100 readers have written to share their experiences of time dilation in the face of […]

  10. Rashaad Gomez says:

    I’ve been doing the movement called Parkour for six years going into seven years now and I feel that it is the strongest feet of defying ones fears and using them to motivate you to keep going no matter what. Parkour is getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible using the human body to overcome obstacles, with a series of vaulting, climbing, jumping with precision, and rolling.

    I’ve recently started to notice that most things average people take as something to fear I as see as something natural, for instance walking on railing eight feet above the ground is something I do everyday and people look up at me an ask “aren’t you scared?” and I usually reply “No reason to be”. It never really occurs to me what if I fall because I know that I’m in complete control of my action and I choose to fall or not to fall.

    The only time I ever have a doubt or some sort of reasoning to what is going to happen is when I don’t believe in my own capabilities, there has been numerous time where I’ve been like I can’t do this and my friends would be like you’ve done this before and you’ve trained for this situation and I believe I can do it, I do it and I’m like “why was I scared?”

    but most of my memorable experiences with Parkour was when I attempted to flip off an eight foot roof. I could remember standing there looking at the ledge before I jump and questioning if it was possible and my friends are cheering me on, then I got the a feeling that I could do it and acted off of it I ran, jumped, flipped and landed then rolled out. the reason why this was so memorable is because I though I was in the air for maybe five second before I finally flipped and made my landing when on a video I made was actually two seconds.

    I believe time can really only be understood in a circumstance of extreme pressure to allow you the ability to react to what you are doing, and if you are in control of the situation is being able to control that instance or time.

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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