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.

6 thoughts on “Readers Write: "How Fear Stopped Time"”

  1. Hello Jeff,

    I read one of your articles in the “Fast Company” magazine & got curious about your blog.
    Interestingly, I had thoughts on fear when I was running through the park a few days ago (I have very non-dramatic yoga experience where teacher told me that I bring fear into the practice…but this is irrelevant to this post). I love adventure (when I am my couch), but I do get scared & my mind freezes when I am actually on top of the mountain going downhill, etc. – sort of like you’ve described your presentation with Google.
    Anyhow, as I was running…I thought – what would it be to free of fear?
    Based on my understanding of the yoga philosophy (Yoga Sutra II.3), fear (“of death”), i.e.: all other fears are rooted in the fear of death is an obstacle to the path of self-awareness & happiness.
    Of course, some of the fears are helping us to survive, but most of our fears are rooted in anticipation of unknown future.
    As Chekhov said “Any idiot can face a crisis, it is this day-to-day living that wears you out”.


  2. Hi Anna,
    Thanks for writing! You raise some interesting points. I don’t know if I agree that all fear is rooted in the fear of death; in fact I think that as neuroscience peers ever deeper into the brain, it emerges that fear often has no “rational” basis at all, but is triggered automatically by internal and external stimuli. That is to say, we don’t need to have a reason to feel fear.
    I do agree though, that fear in many manifestations prevents us from living life to the fullest, and that’s a topic I’ll continue to explore — for instance, in today’s post! Would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. Hi Jeff,

    Great writing! I really enjoy reading your blog:-) I didn’t even have time to update my own – it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts about some of my posts (please forgive my amateur writing skills).
    I’d like to read neuroscience research on fear. I just ordered the book from the library “An illusion of free Will”.
    I think personally, I was able to conquer a lot of fears & it helped me to live fuller live for the most part, but I also put my life in danger (esp. when I was a bit younger), should I label it reckless behavior?!

    the link to my blog:


  4. Hello Jeff-

    This is my first time posting to your site, but felt compelled to do as I came across your article from March of this year regarding the brain stopping time.

    In reading Jermy’s post on his experience as well, I finally feel some closure (sorry for the cliche) on my experience of 30 years ago. Crossing a street one evening, my sister’s boyfriend picked me up and threw me “fireman” style over his shoulder. I had an injured ankle I remember ‘whining’ about, so he did this in order to assuage – or humor me. My sister, by the way, was trailing a few feet behind us.

    Because my rear end was blocking his view from oncoming traffic, he did not see the car coming at us, however, I did and clearly remember thinking several thoughts. Similar to your other reader, I thought, “a car is coming”,”Ted must see this car coming”,”why isn’t he moving faster”, “if he doesn’t, we’ll be hit”, and “oh God, its going to hit us. What seemed an eternity later, the driver did hit us. She had
    been drinking and was going pretty fast, I learned. I recall a sensation of slowly flying through air and then nothing – until I woke on the pavement with quite a few broken bones. Ted did not survive.

    My sister stated later that it happened so quickly, I simply could not have had time to think all of what I did. I clearly remember these thoughts to this day, and have wondered often how it was possible.

    It feels much better knowing I’m not alone in my experience. What I still question, however, is why the brain would manufacture false memories when recalling a fearful event. As I didn’t have time to ponder what, in retrospect, I thought I had, what benefit could this possibly have the individual?

    Thank you so much for your time and blog.

    Jupiter, FL

  5. Since reading your book, I continue to be fascinated by the idea of fear but at least I have some perspective on it. Recently (and inspired by your book) I took my own jump out of an airplane and it was amazing…in fact I just blogged that it was my number one recommendation for EVERYONE to do in 2011.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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