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.

17 thoughts on “How the Brain Stops Time”

  1. 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. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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. 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.

  10. Ive experienced this Time Dilation thing a few times. I wonder if reading the numbers flashing by didnt work because reading them didnt have any impact on whether or not the person would survive the fall. I survived a pretty bad motorcycle crash. I wouldnt have cared about numbers on a display, I was way too busy assessing the event & trying to find a way to avoid hitting anything straight up & getting hurt or killed.
    I think the experiment is truly inspired,a very clever way to test the Time Dilation idea. I also think it may be impossible to create in a controlled environment events sufficiently threatening to trigger the minds need to function at its peak. I’m sure it felt like a longer time falling than the fall took, but what response could the person falling have to it that would change the survivability of the fall? & Of course it makes sense that the event, free fall, a totally new sensation, felt like it lasted longer than it did. & of course, it is scary, but they knew they werent going to die, the threat wasnt real, so, did they get the kind of stimulus that would create the need for their mind to step into that Time Dilation mode? I dont know, but I think thats a valid question, I think its an unanswered & unanswerable question of sufficient importance to leave the question still open to debate.
    I know I was making decisions & taking action while the world was coming at me at about 50 MPH. I remember being 100% focused ( This may be where the perception of Time Dilation comes from) on the event. All of the “Back Burner” thoughts disappear in a stress moment & ones every thought is Dealing with the Here & Now. I dont think theres any real change except our degree of focus, & in a moment of real threat, reading flashing numbers wont change the survivability odds & wont be focused on,

  11. I don’t agree with the last two sentences at all. If we can’t trust the memory of a situation that we just experienced and it is considered to be a ‘retroactive illusion’, then there really wasn’t any experience to experience! It was all just an unreliable illusion! What the heck did one just experience then?! A dream? Schizophrenia? There have been documented (and otherwise) situations where it was a matter of life or death and a person when experiencing the ‘slow-motion’ effect was able to save the day based on being able to react with precision based on seeing things AS THEY WERE, not an illusion! I always find it fascinating that when people of the scientific ilk can’t touch it, fart on it, or in some manner control it, they make up some stupid band-aid statement that all the sheeples are supposed to just accept as fact. I don’t restrict the possibilities the way the scientific community does. I believe in limitless thinking, even if it can’t be measured by current scientific standards. One theory I have on what causes this phenomena is that our brain, during what is perceived as a threat, has the ability to accelerate it’s perception of things to best remedy the situation…kind of like an adrenalin rush is a way that our body avoids dangerous events. (Nolan makes a great point on his perception of the experience). I don’t mean to sound rude, but it is out of frustration with others who didn’t experience what I did first hand, but seemingly have more understanding and grasp of the event than I do! I don’t need anyone to tell me that what I experienced was nothing more than a faulty memory and/or an illusion! This kind of thinking leads one to start doubting everything…that nothing is real. I’ve heard that argument before too. But we have to have some sort of benchmark to go by…so everything cannot be an illusion. Example: If everything is an illusion then I shouldn’t have to follow the lines on the road, it shouldn’t really matter should it? It’s an illusion! No. There has to be some rules, like gravity.

  12. Time stood still for me a few months ago after I had just worked 16 hours and was dog tired, but needed to travel cross country from Memphis to the Left coast for a meeting the next day.
    I am not a pilot, but my work allowed me to “jumpseat” in back on an MD11. I looked forwad to catching a few winks as I was the only passenger. The Rt Seat pilot did not know who I was, and may have mistaken me for someone else.
    Prior to take off he went into great detail about how to exit the aircraft through the cockpit window via a rope, if for any reason we got into a situation and both crew members were incapacitated. He even broke the window seal and cranked open the window, mentioning I should wear the gloves in the cabinet overhead if I had to use the rope so I would not burn my hands going to the ground. I appreciated his explanation, but thought it was over the top. I had jumpseated many times before and no one had gone to such lengths to describe emergency procedures. I was so tired I just wanted to close my eyes as soon as we were airborne.
    About a half hour into the flight a voice came over the intercom telling me to strap my self in tightly, don the full face oxygen mask, “We Were Going Down.”
    The cockpit door was closed, but I could see very bright light streaming in through little openings in the door, not unlike miniature spotlights on a theatre stage. The light was filtered but intense.
    I could hear the cockpit radio crackle and what sounded like an Air Traffic Controller confirming clearance for an Emergency Landing at Albuquerque.
    Now I know what they mean when actors refer to the Vomit Comet as movie makers film weightless scenes by taking an aircraft from 40,000 feet down to about 1000 feet in a steep dive. I had the sensation I was floating, and cinched my belt tighter to keep me in the seat. I was very much aware of the noise and rate my breathing For an instant I thought I was dreaming all this. I took deep, deliberate long breaths,trying to calm myself. Suddenly, I could hear air from outside, rushing as if there was an opening in the fuselage. The next thing I recall was the hard landing and loud screeching of the brakes and tires after we hit the runway. Missing was the sound of reversing the engines, then we came to a stop. Sirens got louder and louder; then a voice on the intercom instructed me to keep the oxygen mask on until told to take it off. Moments later the main door opened from outside and Giant Silver Pillsbury Doughboys were in the doorway with Space Helmets and foam hoses ready to foam me and the inside of the aircraft. They used their heat sensor instruments looking for hotspots. The cockpit door opened and the flight crew stepped out of a smoke filled room and stepped to the doorway. The captain told me I could take off my mask as he spoke with the Firefighters. There was no fire, and as it turned out, the smoke was actually a fine oil mist filled the cockpit after some kind of oil leak vented through air ducts into the cockpit. I later learned that the pilots opened a vent on top of the fuselage to decompress the cabin and evacuate any possible smoke.
    Moments before we touched down I honestly thought it would be the end. I flashed on the Brad Pitt/Anthony Hopkins film Meet Mr. Black, and just wished I had prior notice so I could have made arrangements for someone to take care of my 3 horses after I was gone.
    We walked down a portable ramp stairs as the aircraft was parked out on the tarmak away from the terminal building. A pick up truck took the flight crew and myself to the ramp office where I filed my report and made arrangements for another hitched ride to So Cal.
    The details of each moment are still vivid in my memory as time just crawled by despite dropping from the sky at 700 plus mph from 40,000 feet to the ground in nothing flat.
    It was truly an experience to remember. Your interview with George Noory brought it all back. Thanks for that. It’s good to be here! Food tastes better, and I now take more time to be personal with all my friends, telling those I love, that I do.

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