Time Doesn't Really Slow During Crisis
> 12/26/2007 3:11:20 PM

Many people are haunted by memories of traumatic experiences. These memories can swell to take up an inordinate amount of space in our minds, and numerous accounts of disasters and emergencies contend that time slows during drama. These accounts do not merely say that time seems to drag on, as it does when sitting through a boring lecture; they claim that perceptual processing accelerates so that those in danger can sort through more stimuli in limited time. Researchers from Baylor College recently published the results of an experiment that seems to demonstrate that the slowing of time during crisis is just an illusion.

Time-slowing is a difficult subject to study because self-reporting is unreliable and crises are tough to simulate safely. The Baylor researchers got around both of these obstacles by pushing participants backwards off a 100-foot ledge... into a safety net. On the long fall, participants were charged with reading and memorizing a repeating series of numbers on a display attached to their wrist. After a lot of trials, and doppler-fading screams, the speed of the number display was fine-tuned so that it could be shown just quick enough to evade normal human perception.

Participants reported time-slowing, and overestimated the time of their fall by an average of 36%. However, falling participants were no less able to read the quickly cycling numbers than calmly standing participants. Researchers surmised from this that time-slowing is an illusion retroactively formed when relying on memory and not something actually experienced at the time of the event. According to this hypothesis, crisis memories are more intense and take up more space when encoded, so they seem longer. There are other possibilities, however. For example, participants could really have had boosted perception but at the cost of worsened memory, meaning that they would be able to see the quick numbers at the time but not remember them afterwords. This kind of trade-off might make evolutionary sense, as it is essential that you be able to discern whether the shape jumping out from the bushes is a tiger before it mauls you; staying alive is more important than remembering the exact pattern of the tiger's stripes when you make it back home.

This ingenious study casts a lot of doubt on the idea that the time-slowing experience is caused by objective acceleration of neural activation. Even if the researchers' explanation for their results is not the correct one, it is clear that their work highlighted the convoluted tie between memory, perception, and fear. With thousands of veterans and disaster victims suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, any advancement in our understanding of these ties is welcome.

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