Mind & Body

What Makes Time Stand Still?

The crowd rises up as one to greet you with a cheer. Your teammates scatter in front of you, muscling past the opposition. You pull your arm back to launch that perfect spiral — and the moment seems to stretch into eternity. Somewhere in the distance, you swear you can hear U2. Why does time seem to slow down sometimes, and what's going on in our brains when it happens?

Stopping the Clock

The easiest way to experience a moment of slow-mo time is through the stopped-clock illusion. It's as simple as glancing at an analog clock. That first click of the second hand, didn't it seem to hang in the air for a moment too long?

When you rapidly shift your eyes in one direction, your brain makes a guess at what you'll see when you get there and what you'll see en route. And your brain, as smart as it is, has gotten in the habit of guessing that when you land on the clock, the second hand will be moving. But that's where things get tricky — since you expect it to be moving, and it usually won't move right away, you'll get the sense that it's a heartbeat behind.

There are other times when your brain modulates your perception of time, but they're harder to engineer for yourself. The oddball effect is a way our brain has of picking out the differences in a string of events. In a series of identical or similar events, we tend to overestimate the time of the first one in the series, as well as any deviations from the series. So the first gutterball of the night is the most painful, but all the ones after that fly by. Until we get a strike and time slows down all over again.

When Time Stands Still

But it isn't little temporal illusions and tricks that you can play on your brain that make time seem to bend and stretch. The classic example is moments of great fear and excitement — like falling out of a plane — or moments of breathtaking awe — like standing at the altar waiting for your spouse-to-be.

So here's the bad news. Time isn't really slowing down in those moments, neither literally nor in your ability to absorb more information. Neuroscientists from the Baylor College of Medicine ran an experiment where they activated their subjects' time-slowing fear reflex by pushing them off a 15-story drop (into a harmless circus net). While falling, the droppees had to absorb a set of numbers flashed too fast for the eye to normally see. Theoretically, if they really were experiencing time slower than normal, they could catch sight of those numbers (and presumably avoid being thrown off a 15-story drop again).

Which isn't to say that the drop didn't have an effect on their perception of time. Most of the subjects did report a feeling of time stretching out, even if they didn't get to reap the benefits of that slow-down in the moment. That suggests the feeling has more to do with your memory of what's happened than your actual experience of it. Maybe, like oddball events, that kind of time-shifted memory is meant to give you space in which to reflect on what happened.

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For more on your perception of time, check out "Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time" by Marc Wittman, from the MIT Press. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 12, 2017

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