Readers Write: "How Fear Stopped Time"

Recently, I wrote about how extreme fear distorts our perception of time, causing it to seemingly move in slow motion. In response, a number of readers wrote in with fascinating stories of their own, many of which offer intriguing insights into the phenomenon.

One comment came from a reader who experienced time dilation not in a life-threatening crisis, but in the adrenaline-charged milieu of the boxing ring:

I box at a local gym, nothing big.  But the guys there a really good some go pro.  Watching them from outside the ring they just look lightning fast.  But in the ring with them time does seem to slow down.  I can see punches coming a lot “slower” than when I’m not in there getting  punched in the face.  I have time to react and counter.

It’s worth remembering that the beneficial effects of fear aren’t only relevant when our lives our on the line, but come into play in everyday situations, such as work or recreation. Emotional arousal — in this reader’s case, the thrill of competition and the risk of being punched in the nose — caused the locus ceruleus to release noradrenaline, which in turn allowed his brain to focus intensively on threat-relevant stimuli — in this case, his sparring partner. Meanwhile, an activation of the hippocampus results in memories being laid down more densely than normal, causing a retrospective sensation that time is moving more slowly. Together, these phenomena make the reader more effective as a fighter, and will help him perform better in the future thanks to his denser store of boxing-related memories.

Another reader experienced time dilation as a result not of fear but of intense emotion.

My ex, the mother of my daughter, gave me a chance to see my child for two days. In my first day time seemed to move so slow, especially when I had the first glance of my baby. Then in my second and last day with my baby, time seemed to move so fast. What’s with the sudden change in my perception of time? And am just wondering, does time dilation under stress has the same effect when you’re under euphoria?

In my years as a frequent traveler, I came to develop a personal theory that I called “The 33 Percent Rule”: namely, that the first third of a trip seems to take two-thirds of the time allotted. If you fly to Hawaii for a week, the first day seems to stretch on and on, while the the last three days zip by. The reason is that novelty itself is highly stimulating. When we’re surrounded by new sights and sounds, the hippocampus is busily engaged in laying down memory after memory. Since we subconsciously gauge the flow of time by the density of our memories, time seems to move slowly. Conversely, by the end of the trip, the destination has become more familiar to us, so our memories are less dense, and time seems to speed up.  I suspect a similar effect was at work during the reader’s time with his daughter: the intense joy of reunion must have sent the hippocampus into overdrive, especially at first, but that by the second day the feeling of newness had waned.

Reader Jermy did experience a life-or-death drama:

A couple years back I had a time-slowing experience. I lost control of my car early one morning. I was not going particularly fast, only 30 miles per hour but this was enough, after jumping a curb and clipping a tree, to send my car into a full 360 degree roll… It felt like an eternity and, to me, it seemed as if the broken glass from my windshield was floating around me similar to the bullet-time in The Matrix.

Another thing I experienced was extra time to think. It was panicked thought but it was clear instinctual reasoning. I remember clearly thinking “I’m rolling! I’m rolling! What do I do?! What do I do?! Just wait! Go limp! Just wait!” Then I let go of the wheel, went completely limp like a rag-doll and again watched the glass floating by and my arms bounce about. My car landed right-side up and after checking that I was intact, I was able to open my door and get out of the car with only a few scratches and bruises. It could have been chance, I suppose, but I think it was this time slowing effect which gave me time to think that allowed me to simply walk away from this one.

What strikes me particularly about Jermy’s account is the sense of consciously decided to go limp. As I discuss in Extreme Fear, people who find themselves in a hopeless situation often later talk about how they decided to go limp and play possum; this is particularly common among survivors of mass shootings such as the one that took place at Virginia Tech. I argue in the book that we are not capable of making that kind of decision; what is actually happening is that a combination of fear and hopelessness activates, via a midbrain structure called the periaqueductal gray, a stereotyped response called tonic immobility, aka “playing possum.” Because we are powerfully biased to perceive our own actions as being the result of conscious intention, however, it feels like the survivors made an active decision to go limp. For me, the issue raises the question: how much of what we feel like we’re deliberately doing in the course of our daily lives is actually consciously willed, and how much simply automatic behavior that our conscious minds erroneously take ownership of? To what extent, in other words, is free will an illusion? For anyone who’s interested in this (actually rather disturbing) topic, I heartily recommend Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will.