How Time Tricks Our Minds

The brain sometimes renders new and traumatic events in slow motion so it can adequately inventory the details.
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(Photo: darrentunnicliff/Flickr)

(Photo: darrentunnicliff/Flickr)

“Time passes slowly up here in the mountains / We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains / Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream / Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream”  —Bob Dylan, “Time Passes Slowly”

No, Bob. It doesn't. 

Time doesn't pass slowly or quickly, unless you happen to be near a black hole. (Even then, it's more time relative to other people's experience of time, not time itself.) Time just passes, same as always, one second at a time. But there are certain instances when, despite this knowledge, it just doesn't feel that way. Back in school, those last 20 minutes before the bell rung just seemed ... to ... take ... forever. Or when you're at an amazing party, and it's over before you know it.

Last week, I experienced a subtle time shift of my own. I was on a new hike, of the straight point-A-to-point-B-and-back-again variety. And the time spent hiking from the start (a dirt parking lot) to the finish (a waterfall overlooking the Pacific) seemed to take a hell of a long time. But heading back over the same stretch seemed to take no time at all. Now, I didn't actually look at my watch during the hike, but the return was over the same distance with no huge changes in elevation. The two parts took roughly the same amount of time, but they felt eons apart.

But on the return trip, those bends in the road are old news; after a few weeks, you not only know Frank from HR's name, but also that he sneaks Baileys into his morning coffee.

What is my silly brain doing when this happens?

“One hypothesis is related to the attentional model of time perception,” says Eve Isham, a professor at the University of California-Davis Center for the Mind and Brain. “According to this theory, when more attentional resources are allocated to a particular event, that event appears longer lasting.”

In other words, during the hike out, I was taking in as much information as possible because it was all new. Kind of like those first days on a new job where you learn a bunch of names, fill out reams of paperwork, and watch that eerie Sexual Harassment in the Work Place VHS in the break room. “These novel items require greater attention,” Isham says. But on the return trip, those bends in the road are old news; after a few weeks, you not only know Frank from HR's name, but also that he sneaks Baileys into his morning coffee. “It's no longer novel, so the trip appears shorter,” Isham says.

Outside factors can also affect our perception of time: Isham told me about a study in which participants were told they were competing in a race against another player to see who pressed a button faster. At the race's end, the participant was told whether they had won or lost (which wasn't an actual result), and was asked to report the amount of time they thought it took them to press the button. The results: If the participant was told they won, they reported a shorter time. If they were told they lost, they reported a longer one. “It seems as if we are always making adjustments to our perception,” Isham says.

It all has to do with a concept called time dilation. Definitionally, this is a term from the theory of relativity that means the difference of time between two events as measured by observers moving relative to one another or differently situated from gravitational masses. (This is the black hole stuff, the two synchronized atomic clocks slowly becoming de-synched as they get further from a gravitational pull, why—spoiler—MattMac becomes younger than his own daughter in Interstellar.) But the term is also used to describe how our minds grasp time differently in different scenarios.

Perhaps the most common scenario involving time dilation is perception during a particularly shocking, maybe life-threatening, event. “If your car rolled off the road, and the whole event lasted about a minute, you might feel like it lasted three minutes,” Isham says. If you haven't experienced a wreck, surely you've heard enough stories from survivors recalling how everything seemed to “be in slow motion” during the accident. (Which: If you're in a forgiving mood, you can give the filmmakers of the Fast and Furious series the benefit of the doubt that their constant use of slow motion is to provide glimpses into the minds of the characters and not just to make sure every cent of that multi-million dollar pile-up is shown. A very forgiving mood.)

“I had the sense that everything slowed down,” says Richard Ivry, a psychology professor at the University of California-Berkeley, telling me about his own car accident. “I saw the tree versus the telephone pole, and I could almost make a choice of which one I'd want to hit.” But can someone use this “slow-motion” perception to make better decisions? Can we suddenly become Neo and use the extra time to avoid bullets?

But can someone use this “slow-motion” perception to make better decisions? Can we suddenly become Neo and use the extra time to avoid bullets?

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, looked into this. Back in 2010, he brought his students to Six Flags AstroWorld and found a ride terrifying enough to induce perceptual slow motion: a free-fall. (This is one of those that takes riders straight up, leaves them hanging for a torturous few seconds, and releases the hold, plunging them 150 feet straight down.) And so, to see if that “extra time” could be used, Eagleman outfitted his students with a wrist chronometer, a device that outputs a series of numbers so quickly that it looks like a blur in real time. If the students read the device in this high-stress, slow-motion experience, would they be able to actually see the numbers?

Nope, the numbers were still too blurry to read. This means that despite seeming to live in slow motion during times of great stress, we can't use the experience to our advantage. Time still passes as usual. So, why does it seem like time's slowing down? It probably has to do with memory.

“If you reconstruct a memory with great detail, it makes it seem longer,” Ivry says. “Our sense of time is a reflection of how much we can replay the event. That sense of things slowing down is actually about reconstruction.”

Ever try to stream a movie with a bad Internet connection? You generally have two choices. You can watch it in regular definition, and it'll look grainy but have normal fluidity. Or you can try HD, and it'll look choppy despite the image being clear. Well, we only have so much bandwidth in our brains. Our normal, everyday lives—more specifically, the memories of them—are in regular definition. They're not “novel,” so we don't need them to be crystal clear. But when we experience a traumatic event, we collect information in HD because our minds want to get everything. (Who knows what will come in handy?) The only way to play all of that information back is by slowing the replay way, way down.

“It's probably the same reason why we experience other forms of perceptual illusions,” Isham says. “We don't have enough cognitive power to precisely and accurately perceive everything.”

How can knowing about these time dilations help us hack the mind? Studies have shown that those with depression feel time is passing more slowly than others, which is a feeling everyone can relate to: When you're sad, it doesn't seem like the day's going to end. “Hypothetically, what if time could be psychologically sped up for these individuals?” Isham asks. “Could that help elevate their mood?” But there's another way time dilation is being explored, and it's more punitive in nature.

Our prison system is based on the removal of time as a punishment. Do something wrong, and we're taking a portion of your life away, with time being the measure. What if the perception of time could be changed for prisoners? Through time dilation, a prisoner could feel as if they've been locked up for 1,000 years, but they'd only really be locked up for the day. (This is theoretical; no technology has been made yet to accomplish this goal—yet.) “This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer,” wrote philosopher Rebecca Roache, who is skeptical the process would ever get used, due to the murky moral conundrums inherent to mind-rearranging. But, in my opinion, the actual problem with the potential punishment is one of relatability. We get what a 20-year prison term is, even if we haven't experienced it. A 1,000-year sentence served in a few hours is just confusing.

While time may get a little slippery now and then—whether on a hike or in a car accident—it's still something we all feel, something we all understand. Time is, after all, the great healer, equalizer, revealer, and enemy. That's not something to mess with.