A slow motion mind during extreme danger?

NPR has a fantastic short radio segment on whether we really do experience time more slowly when our life is in danger.

The piece riffs on a 2007 study called ‘Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event?’ led by neuroscientist David Eagleman who discusses the project on the show.

The experimenters wanted a way to find a way to test whether we suddenly start experiencing time in greater detail when in mortal danger, or whether it just seems that way when we look back on it.

Of course, genuinely putting people in life-threatening situations is a little unethical, so the team used something called SCAD diving, where people are dropped – free fall – into a net.

SCAD diving was just what David needed — it was definitely terrifying. But he also needed a way to judge whether his subjects’ brains really did go into turbo mode. So, he outfitted everybody with a small electronic device, called a perceptual chronometer, which is basically a clunky wristwatch. It flashes numbers just a little too fast to see. Under normal conditions — standing around on the ground, say — the numbers are just a blur. But David figured, if his subjects’ brains were in turbo mode, they would be able to read the numbers.

The falling experience was, just as David had hoped, enough to freak out all of his subjects. “We asked everyone how scary it was, on a scale from 1 to 10,” he reports, “and everyone said 10.” And all of the subjects reported a slow-motion effect while falling: they consistently over-estimated the time it took to fall. The numbers on the perceptual chronometer? They remained an unreadable blur.

“Turns out, when you’re falling you don’t actually see in slow motion. It’s not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work,” David says. “It’s something more interesting than that.”

The NPR piece is only short but is put together by the fantastic RadioLab guys and is probably the best 7 min 46 sec you’ll spend all day.
 

Link to NPR on fear and slow motion perception.
Link to full text of study at PLoS One.

5 Comments

  1. gerhard
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    this doesn’t make sense. if i built a camera with a physical limit of +- 30 frames a second but give it a 800mhtz cpu then it will process each frame at a certain rate. however if i increase the cpu to a 3ghtz then all that will happen is that the individual frames get processed faster. the camera itself will not take faster pictures …

  2. robert provins
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    i’ve read research indicating a speedup of the “gamma” waves in the brain in emergencies and during certain types of meditation, it was suggested that it is a sort of “sampling clock” controlling our sampling rate of our enviroment. higher rate, more samples, seeming to take a longer time. slower rate, fewer samples, things seem to happen very fast.

  3. ranul
    Posted August 12, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    well, i’ve experienced slow motion while i was about to fall from moving train, it was like almost time stood still!

  4. Charles Hamilton
    Posted August 26, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I would like to know to train my brain to see in slow motion because I want to see things come to me slow to have more time to move quickly


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