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In The Time of Tachysensia

Tachysensia, real or not, might be more common than we once believed.

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Source: Joseph Mazur

Wow! I must have hit a nerve.

After my last post, “Is There Such a Thing as Tachysensia?” I received dozens of feedback messages with stories of tachysensia bouts, along with comments claiming that there is no such thing as tachysensia. The medical journals, and even the DSM, have almost nothing to say on the subject, so all I can do at this stage without resourced clinical material is to keenly parse and filter through all the stories for an initial glimpse into what is familiar.

What am I finding?

There have been references to PTSD, fevers, migraines, awe, stress, fears, anxiety, and silence. Some people say they have experienced it only in childhood, others all their lives. Every story touches similarities to others, so the overarching term for the predominant feeling is tachysensia, an umbrella name innocently expecting its mix of Greek and Latin stems to convey some impression of what people go through. For those who have never experienced the frightening feeling, it is enormously hard, perhaps impossible, to get a sense of what one goes through, even from the most vivid stories told.

Here are quotes from a few shared stories.

  • It felt as if I were in a tunnel with a person approaching me—the same person—many times over and over again at great speed.
  • I would hear a clock on a wall ticking so loudly as I saw the second hand whipping around, it sounded like someone was hitting a giant bell with a sledgehammer.
  • I’m standing on an escalator, going up, but the people on the down one to my right are descending five times as fast.
  • The surroundings around me appear to move fast as if someone pressed fast forward on a movie. I know nothing is happening in the actual world but my brain thinks it's in one of those hyperdrives from Star Wars.

These four extracted quotes share something in common—they all involve a distortion or dilation of time. Many readers writing to me had the feeling that they were alone in the world with an immeasurably rare, serious ailment. Some were frightened. I found that many of those fast-feelings seem to be frightening experiences that are kept private.

  • I thought I was the only person to experience the slowing of time/speeding…
  • I have never mentioned this phenomenon to anyone before because it truly seemed so bizarre and almost hard to reasonably explain to someone.
  • Thank you for the word. I now have a name for it, and I can see that I’m not alone.
  • With every attack, I’m so frightened.

I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist nor neurologist, though rather a mathematician and science journalist who has researched and written extensively about “time.” To start a preliminary understanding, let us consider how the body knows the passing of time. Any conscious sense of time comes to us by our experiences in the physical world. Frequently, we are aware of time, yet often not. We are almost always anticipating the future.

Think about it. We are forever planning. From the moment we get up in the morning to the time we go to bed, we have to be thinking about what will happen next. You have breakfast, but where? How? Those thoughts come at rapid speeds, flashing by, in the realities of the world we live in with contributions from an imagined world. You have to slip events tightly into short interval-free moments of the fast pace of the day as the day moves on. Some plans are routine, some unconscious. All are part of the body and mind plan to keep you happy, but mostly safe and alive.

For that, the brain acquires information from surrounding environmental situations and uses it to anticipate possible dangers to the body.

Those who experience tachysensia spells seem to be always consciously aware of what is happening. And since consciousness is distributed through many regions of the brain while being frequently entangled in myriads of experiences bombarding the central nervous system there is no one precise area of the brain that can be tagged to the consciousness of a particular event.

Seeing movement with our eyes involves the brain along with information accumulated from the environment, circadian rhythms, and our sense of time from what we have always experienced by the clocks we observe. The brain uses more than twenty thousand neurons to synchronize body rhythms (breathing heartbeats, etc.) by a combination of internal and external cues.

From here, things get quite complicated. Enter the billions of circuit connections with electrical charges signaling information about what we truly see. They undergo reality checks similar, but not quite, to what happens in electronic communications network data download error-checking systems. When data moves from the memory of one computer to that of another, it goes through a closed-loop system, which automatically feeds incoming data back to its origin to compare it to itself before it gets sent out again. If the comparison is in error, it tries again. But the human brain is not a computer. It relies not only on electrical charges but also on the chemistry of the cells that are interpreting and transporting data.

There are bound to be glitches in the transport of information. In particular, since chemical reactions speed up when heated, fever speeds up the biological clock, thereby throwing off the electrochemical “memory” of the time that passes, which in turn throws off the synchronicity with the speed that is expected by the brain.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the hypothesis telling us that what we see is what we expect to see. Expectation often involves focusing and attention, as the invisible Gorilla demonstrates. But there is also evidence that we only see what we anticipate seeing because the brain is not an AI computer eyeing the world for what it effectively is. Instead, it is an organic machine with a secondary feedback loop that corroborates what we see with what we expect to see.

We do not "see" effects that conflict with established experience. The task of the mind is to interpret perceptions of the world so it can live without contradictions. What we see with our eyes does not necessarily have to be what exists; it only has to be consistent with our expected perceptions of the world.

We know the brain to be an amazingly complex machine that—being organic with billions of circuits operating on a wealth of electrochemical signals—can every once in a while, because of its complexity, go through glitches, hiccups, and faults that contradict the expected perceptions.

With such complexity, it is a wonder that we do not all have frequent tachysensia spells, as we do headaches or tummy aches, or sleepless nights.

I am going to go out on a limb here to say that whatever one feels while under a tachysensia spell is likely just one of those rare hiccups that prove we are living beings. Now, as I said before: I have no credentials to say this with any authority, but as long as these spells are infrequent, as long as they do not seriously debilitate the ability to carry out the daily task of living successfully, it might be wonderous to go through a few such spells every few years.

One could even have spells that inspire latent creativity, as a musical composer did when she was inspired enough by tachysensia sensations to compose a score in which an ensemble plays together sometimes, but at different tempos at other times. She found a way to relay her sense of the spell.

That said, I do have words of caution. If you have any concerns about your symptoms, my advice is first to consult your physician, then, if necessary, to consult a neurologist.

© 2020 Joseph Mazur


Joseph Mazur, Euclid in the Rainforest: Discovering Universal Truth in Logic and Mathematics (New York: Dutton, 2006), 44.

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