Is There Such a Thing as Tachysensia?
What does it feel like when the body seems to move faster than it actually does?
Posted Oct 21, 2020
Does anyone know anything about a curious medical syndrome called tachysensia? Searching the web gets one only as far as a similar curiosity called “The Alice in Wonderland” syndrome, often called “Fast Feeling syndrome.” Perhaps some of my readers know something about the clinical findings of these conditions. They have been around for over 50 years, but little is known about them definitively.
A young musician sent me a message about her rare but unsettling time-rushing attacks. She thought (correctly) that I might be interested in what she called her tachysensia spells, lasting between 5 and 10 minutes. From her description, she experiences a sensation that her movements are hurried/speeded-up, even when she is purposely moving forward. Along with the spell comes a vague imagining of distant shouting. She wrote that it happens four or five times a year when she is alone and in silence.
When in a tachysensia spell, If she is writing something, she feels that she is scribbling frantically. Even crossing her legs or blinking seems more than three times the actual speed.
During those spells, she hears voices, which she qualifies by saying, “I hear them, but know they are not real.” She hears someone say her name.
“Have you ever imagined that you heard someone say your name or heard a loud noise right as you were about to fall asleep?” she asked.
“No, I have not,” I answered. “That must be quite disturbing.”
She hears her name and falls asleep, but soon wakes in a half-sleep with reverberations of the sound of someone calling her name, even though she knows that no one is there. “It’s like a footprint just appearing. These are the kinds of voices I hear.”
It feels to her as though someone is screaming. A constant stream of such sounds continues. Sometimes it feels to her as if her parents are scolding her. “Sometimes it feels like an unfamiliar menacing fast whisper,” she volunteers. “It is so hard to describe in words, but so familiar to me now.”
Besides material on Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, the closest medical report I could find is one from Perspectives in Pediatric Neurology titled, “The Curious Case of the Fast Feelers: A Reflection on Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.
The authors describe it as a feeling that body movements speed up to 1.5 to 3 times the actual speed of movement. There is a small support group of about a thousand “Fast Feelers,” some found to fall into these fast feeling episodes for less than 10 minutes from one to five times a year.
There are two other published sources, one in Cephalalgia suggesting that the subjects of their investigations might be having a variant of migraine attacks. The other is in Clinical Pediatrics. None tell the full story of my musician contact.
I assume that some of my readers know something about this strange syndrome that has a name without a definitive diagnosis. Can it be real? Can it be just another form of migraine? Or is it likely to be a skidding synchronization of the body-clock with environmental time?
I can recall similar experiences when I was much younger under conditions of having a fever from a bout with the flu. I would see space and time dilated, as if in a dream. Only I was not dreaming. People in the room would seem very far away, and their motions were disturbingly fast. We know that high body temperature can distort the sense of time.
In the 1930s, neuroendocrinologist Hudson Hoagland experimented with body temperature and discovered that there is a correlation between body temperature and time perception. He studied electrical impulses that transmit information about sensory processes to the brain from the skin. Chemical reactions speed up when heated. So he suspected that fever speeds up the biological clock, which has an electrochemical “memory” of the number of milliseconds that pass in any one interval. That memory works by storing information on the rate at which its chemicals go through modifications. There are, however, external factors to take into account, such as the counteracting processes of perspiration and shivering as a result of body heating.
These days, we know that the prefrontal cortex, an area that plays a key role in time planning, is sensitive to changes in brain temperature. And there is speculation that neural pathways regulating internal clocks are also responsive to internal temperatures, even though internal body temperature may or may not play a role in any cognitive processes of attention and memory. But, for sure, by Hoagland’s work linking two faculties that influence our impressions of time’s passing, we know that when body temperature increases, all sense of time duration are foreshortened.
We know that brain-time functions are reasonably locked in a coordinated tempo coinciding with biochemical essentials for staying alive. Other organic factors, however, also contribute to a sense of time, and we can have illusions that are often modified by recent experiences—for instance, experiencing danger or the threat of danger, or even a feeling of awe seems to slow time down.
Time slows considerably just before and after dangerous events such as skydiving and bungee jumping. So perhaps tachysensia and Alice in Wonderland syndromes are simply spells of awe or body temperature modulations resulting from a rare moment of fear.
As for the woman who contacted me, she is composing a score inspired by the sensation and experience of tachysensia, in which the ensemble plays together sometimes, but at different tempos at other times. Will that piece give us a sense of the spell?
Hudson Hoagland, Pacemakers in Relation to Aspects of Behavior (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 108.
Hudson, Hoagland, “The Physiological Control of Judgments of Duration: Evidence for a Chemical Clock,” Journal of General Psychology 9 (1933): 267-87.
Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D.Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker (2012) “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being,” Psychological Science Vol. 23, Issue 10: 1130-1136.