Out of the Darkness

The science of post-traumatic growth.

When Seconds Turn Into Minutes

Why do accidents and emergencies make time slow down so radically?

A few years ago a friend of mine was knocked off his motorbike at a high speed. The impact catapulted him through the air, and when he hit the ground he lost consciousness. The next thing he knew he woke up in hospital eight hours later. But he can still vividly remember the few moments before he lost consciousness:

I saw the car's windscreen shattering. The glass sprayed out so slowly, like a fan, and it looked beautiful. All the pieces were shining in the sun. I felt like I was floating through the air, almost as if I wasn't going to come down. I looked into the sun and it was like being on a plane, when you're above the clouds and it's a brilliant white colour.

It's extremely common for accidents and other moments of sudden shock to bring an extreme slowing down of time. In fact, I would guess that most people have had this experience. After my book Making Time was published, I was sent many examples of them. For example, here a person described to me how time slowed down when he helped an old lady who lost her balance and was about to fall over:

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Instinctively I reached out and wrapped my left arm around her but was off-balance and the weight of her pulled me down too. But then, between that moment and hitting the pavement a split-second later, everything went into slow motion and, in what seemed like a beautifully choreographed series of movements, I twisted myself underneath her so that she fell on top of me and relaxed my body sufficiently to ensure that I didn’t break any of my bones upon impact. 

The same slowing down of time often occurs in emergency situations, when our lives are threatened. There are many reports of time slowing down massively during earthquakes or before airplane crashes, for example. One woman who experienced the devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988 reported that, ‘It was like a slow motion movie. There was a concrete panel slowly falling down.’

Why does time seem to slow down in these moments of emergency? One possible explanation is indicated by the second experience above. The time-slowing down effect may be a neurological or psychological ‘trick’ which our ancestors developed as an aid to survival. This ‘trick’ increases our chances of surviving emergency situations, because it gives us more time to respond to the situation, to prepare and position ourselves. In this sense, you could see the ability as an evolutionary adaptation.

Another suggestion is that the 'time-slowing' effect is due to the increased number of impressions and perceptions the mind absorbs during these moments. It does seem to be the case that increased information slows down time perception. (This is one of the main themes of my previous blogs about time.) However, in accident and emergency situations, this could just as easily be an effect rather than a cause. That is, a slowed down sense of time may be the very reason why we become able to absorb many more impressions. (It has also been suggested that this is based on recollection, that we don't actually experience time passing slowly, but just remember it that way when we look back, because of the increased number of memories which are created. But this explanation seems to belie the powerful reality of the experiences. No one who has experienced them would doubt that the time-expansion is occuring right at that moment, rather than the result of memory.)

This sounds plausible, but my preferred explanation is that the time-slowing effect is due to an abrupt shift into a different mode of consciousness. Our normal sense of time passing is a function of our normal state of consciousness. There are many varieties of ‘altered’ states of consciousness in which time slows down drastically: the ‘zone’ experiences of athletes, for example, in states of deep meditation, or under the influence of psychedelic drugs such as LSD. There are also some altered states in which time appears to pass very quickly, such as hypnosis and ‘flow’ states. All of these states show that our normal sense of passing isn’t absolute or fixed - it’s just a psychological construct, dependent on a certain ‘mode’ of consciousness.

More specifically, radically different perceptions of time are due to the dissolution of our normal ‘self-system’ - the system of psychological structures and processes which constitutes our ‘normal’ state of mind. This system constitutes who we perceive ourselves to be, and we experience the world through it almost all the time. But occasionally this self-system dissolves away, and suddenly we experience the world (and ourselves) and in a completely different way - one feature of which is a radically different perception of time.

Have you ever experienced a radical slowing down of time? If so, please relay your experience in the ‘comments’ section below, or send it to me at s.m.taylor@leedsmet.ac.uk

Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Making TIme: Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds and How to Control it. www.stevenmtaylor.com

 

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Have you ever experienced a radical slowing down of time? If so, please relay your experience in the ‘comments’ section below, or send it to me at s.m.taylor@leedsmet.ac.uk

 

Steve Taylor Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and a researcher in transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University.

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