Why Time Can Move in Slow Motion

April 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Mind Stretch

dreamlandscapeWhy does time seem to move in slow motion when we are in danger?  Scientists once assumed such time warps were caused by a release of adrenaline. But an entirely new explanation hais now being offered.  

To determine why a sense of danger makes people experience time in slow motion, scientists at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine tried scaring volunteers by dropping them from great heights. The scientists had volunteers dive backward with no ropes attached, into a special net that broke their fall. They reached 70 mph during the roughly three-second, 150-foot drop.

It’s the scariest thing I have ever done, said neuroscientist David Eagleman. The researcher felt it might be the perfect way to make people feel a danger-related time warp. He was right. The volunteers estimated their own fall lasted about a third longer than the dive actually took.

To determine if people in danger could actually see and perceive more like a video camera in slow motion, Eagleman developed  a perceptual chronometer they strapped onto volunteers’ wrists. This watch-like device flickered numbers on its screen. The scientists could adjust the speed at which numbers appeared until they were too fast to see.

If the brain sped up when in danger, the researchers theorized numbers on the perceptual chronometers would appear slow enough to read while volunteers fell. Instead, the scientists found that volunteers could not read the numbers at faster-than-normal speeds.

They concluded that such time warping seems to be a trick played by one’s memory. When a person is frightened, a brain area called the amygdala becomes more active, laying down an extra set of memories that supplement  those normally laid down by the brain.

In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories, Eagleman explained. And, he theorizes, the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took.

He feels this illusion is related to the phenomenon that time seems to speed up as you grow older. When you’re a child, you lay down rich memories for all your experiences;. But when you’re older, you’ve seen it all before and lay down fewer memories. Therefore, when a child looks back at the end of a summer, it seems to have lasted forever, while adults think it zoomed by.

What do YOU think about his theory?