In The Matrix, hero Neo wins his battles
when time slows in the simulated world.
In the real world, accident victims often
report a similar slowing as they slide
unavoidably into disaster. But can humans
really experience events in slow motion?
Apparently not, said researchers at Baylor
College of Medicine in Houston, who studied
how volunteers experience time when they
free-fall 100 feet into a net below. Even
though participants remembered their own
falls as having taken one-third longer than
those of the other study participants, they
were not able to see more events in time.
Instead, the longer duration was a trick of
their memory, not an actual slow-motion
experience. The study appears online today
in the journal Public Library of Science One.
"People commonly report that time seemed to
move in slow motion during a car accident,"
said Dr. David Eagleman, assistant professor
of neuroscience and psychiatry and behavioral
sciences at BCM. "Does the experience of slow
motion really happen, or does it only seem to
have happened in retrospect? The answer is
critical for understanding how time is
represented in the brain."
When roller coasters and other scary amusement
park rides did not cause enough fear to make
"time slow down," Eagleman and his graduate
students Chess Stetson and Matthew Fiesta
sought out something even more frightening.
They hit upon Suspended Catch Air Device diving,
a controlled free-fall system in which "divers"
are dropped backwards off a platform 150 feet
up and land safely in a net. Divers are not
attached to ropes and reach 70 miles per hour
during the three-second fall.
"It's the scariest thing I have ever done," said
Eagleman. "I knew it was perfectly safe, and I
also knew that it would be the perfect way to make
people feel as though an event took much longer
than it actually did."
The experiment consisted of two parts. In one, the
researchers asked participants to reproduce with a
stopwatch how long it took someone else to fall,
and then how long their own fall seemed to have
lasted. In general, people estimated that their own
fall appeared 36 percent longer than that of their
However, to determine whether that distortion
meant they could actually see more events happening
in time - like a camera in slow motion - Eagleman
and his students developed a special device called
the perceptual chronometer that was strapped to
the volunteers' wrists. Numbers flickered on the
screen of the watch-like unit. The scientists
adjusted the speed at which the numbers flickered
until it was too fast for the divers to see.
They theorized that if time perception really slowed,
the flickering numbers would appear slow enough for
the divers to easily read while in free-fall.
They found that while the subjects were able to
read numbers presented at normal speeds during
the free-fall, they could not read them at
"We discovered that people are not like Neo in
The Matrix, dodging bullets in slow-mo. The paradox
is that it seemed to participants as though their
fall took a long time. The answer to the paradox is
that time estimation and memory are intertwined:
the volunteers merely thought the fall took a longer
time in retrospect," he said.
During a frightening event, a brain area called the
amygdala becomes more active, laying down a secondary
set of memories that go along with those normally
taken care of by other parts of the brain.
"In this way, frightening events are associated
with richer and denser memories. And the more
memory you have of an event, the longer you believe
it took," Eagleman explained.
The study allowed them to deduce that a person's
perception of time is not a single phenomenon
that speeds or slows. "Your brain is not like a
video camera," said Eagleman.
Eagleman and his team have been able to verify
this conclusion in the laboratory. In an experiment
that appeared in a recent issue of PLoS One,
Eagleman and graduate student Vani Pariyadath
used 'oddballs' in a sequence to bring about a
similar duration distortion. For example, when
they flashed on the computer screen a shoe, a
shoe, a shoe, a flower and a shoe, viewers believed
the flower stayed on the screen longer, even though
it remained there the same amount of time as the shoes.
Pariyadath and Eagleman showed that even though
durations are distorted during the oddball, other
aspects of time - such as flickering lights or
accompanying sounds - do not change.
The conclusion from both studies was the same.
"It can seem as though an event has taken an
unusually long time, but it doesn't mean your
immediate experience of time actually expands.
It simply means that when you look back on it, you
believe it to have taken longer," Eagleman said.
"This 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; when your 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; adults think it zoomed by."
Article adapted by Medical News Today from original press