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