Monday, December 17, 2007

Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event?

I found this fascinating. Three researchers (Chess Stetson, Matthew P. Fiesta, and David M. Eagleman) tried to answer the question: Does Time Really Slow Down during a Frightening Event?

From the abstract:

"Observers commonly report that time seems to have moved in slow motion during a life-threatening event. It is unknown whether this is a function of increased time resolution during the event, or instead an illusion of remembering an emotionally salient event. Using a hand-held device to measure speed of visual perception, participants experienced free fall for 31 m before landing safely in a net. We found no evidence of increased temporal resolution, in apparent conflict with the fact that participants retrospectively estimated their own fall to last 36% longer than others' falls. The duration dilation during a frightening event, and the lack of concomitant increase in temporal resolution, indicate that subjective time is not a single entity that speeds or slows, but instead is composed of separable subcomponents. Our findings suggest that time-slowing is a function of recollection, not perception: a richer encoding of memory may cause a salient event to appear, retrospectively, as though it lasted longer."

For the experiment they first measured how quickly the subjects could differentiate two numbers in a normal, restful situation. Then they dropped people 150 feet. During the 2.9 seconds of the fall, the subjects were again asked to differentiate between two new numbers. They didn't find any increase in the rate of perception.

While time dilation in movies can be a cool plot device, it looks like it is just fiction.

(Hat tip:

Technorati tags: Time Dilation, slow time


FatcatPaulanne said...

I felt like it did during my car wreck. It seemed like 5 minutes before it was over. It's funny how it seems that time slows down.

Janine Cate said...

I know what you mean. I can remember feeling the same way.