It happens in situations of extreme danger. In accidents that nearly or really happen. In instances of violence. People later report that external events seemed to unfold in slow motion. It happened to me once. I was driving my car on a street that was still wet from the previous night’s rainfall. When I turned a corner, the rear tires lost their grip and skidded away. In that moment, when I knew that I had to steer against the skidding of my car, time slowed down. I was very calm and waited for the right moment when I had to turn the steering wheel. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. I eventually moved the steering wheel, and my car was on track again. The event happened perhaps in a second or two, but it felt much longer. People report of much more dangerous situations, say, when a truck was barreling head-on at one’s car. Afterward, the car driver reports that she was able to perform all the required actions with uncanny calm — engage the clutch, shift, and accelerate — and thereby manage to avoid collision. In the movie The Matrix, fight scenes were famously depicted in slow motion — a cinematic device for showing how the characters were acting in full awareness, and how they experienced the situation.
What would be an explanation for this slow-motion effect? Obviously, physical time does not slow down. It is our experience that has changed. The standard explanation would be that the internal processes run faster in situations of “fight or flight.” Inasmuch as the brain works more quickly in a situation of danger, the world outside seems to be moving more slowly. The function of such acceleration is clear: When the organism processes environmental stimuli faster than usual, it enables one to respond more readily. Perceiving, thinking, and acting faster amounts to an advantage for survival. What goes on in the body and the brain in such situations has been worked out and summarized by the Finnish Philosopher Valtteri Arstila in an article in Frontiers in Psychology. Accordingly, and in relation to the speeding neural and mental processes within the observer, external events relatively slow down.
But does time really expand when people have an accident? Or is it perhaps only later, when people look back, that they feel the event has lasted longer? The question for research is: Can one investigate this phenomenon in the laboratory to verify whether time really slows down and duration expands? Of course, one cannot arrange a real accident in a laboratory. But one can think of an experiment with which one might still be able to measure some change in a person’s experience of time. Numerous laboratory tests have indeed shown that emotionally charged stimuli are judged to last longer. For example, in an experiment done by Virginie van Wassenhove and colleagues which features an image on a screen that seems to be moving toward the observer, people judge this event to last longer than when the image appears to be moving away from them. In the first case, the object on the screen is involuntarily registered as (mildly) potential danger, which leads to elevated arousal levels. In analogy to the slow-motion effect that occurs in threatening situations, time appears to stretch out. A similar effect of temporal dilation can be achieved when emotionally fraught images (a huge spider, a plane crash, erotic pictures) are shown. Compared to “neutral” pictures (say, sticks and stones), highly arousing pictures — whether in positive or negative fashion — are thought to last longer.
In using the experimental paradigm where circles either move on a collision course toward the observer or move away, we recorded the participant’s brain activation with a brain scanner (fMRI). Results were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. As expected, when the circle moved toward the participant, that event was judged to last longer than when the circle moved away. This was the effect we wanted to produce: In a situation of “threat,” events seem to last longer. What happened in the brain? The fMRI brain activation showed that an area in the middle part of the brain (the cingulate cortex) was especially activated, a region that is often active when events have something personal to do with ourselves. Brain researchers like Georg Northoff assume that the cingulate cortex has a role when we thinking about ourselves. In the case of the circle coming closer, the threatening stimulus approaching is the event that is personally related to the participant: “It is on collision course towards me!”
This was probably the first study to show the regions of the brain that are associated with a perceived slowing down of time during a threatening situation. Of course, our experimental situation is not comparable to a real-life situation, such as during bungee jumping or parachuting, or an experiment once done by colleagues of ours by having subjects fall into a net from a platform and record how much time they felt had passed. A next step might be one where researchers use a virtual reality setting, where events happening to the participant appear highly realistic.
Wittmann M., van Wassenhove V., Craig A.D., Paulus M.P. (2010). The neural substrates of subjective time dilation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 4 (2).
Arstila, V. (2012). Time slows down during accidents. Frontiers in Psychology 3 (196).