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Sensing in Slow Motion
by Ron Kurtus (updated 18 May 2023)
We can all sense the passage of time through some sort of internal time-sensor. (See Sensing Time for more information.) When we are having fun, time seems to go by quickly, while when we are bored, it goes by slowly.
In some special situations, the perception of time can change dramatically, such that it seems like you are moving in slow motion.
Questions you may have include:
- What is this experience?
- Who has had this experience?
- Why does it happen?
This lesson will answer those questions.
The experience of slow motion
Have you ever seen an action movie where there is an explosion and a person flies through the air in slow motion? This, of course, is done for dramatic effects, but interestingly enough, many people have experienced something similar.
It seems that in certain dangerous situations, perception of time goes into slow motion, such that a person is aware of everything happening at a different rate if time than what is normal. People have experienced this when involved in a car accident, when falling from a tree or similar event where there is a time between the beginning and ending of the accident or impact.
Many have had experience
Many people, including myself have experienced time in slow motion. On the other hand, there are cases where you would expect it to be mentioned, but nothing is said about it.
My experience flying through the air
I had such an experience a few years ago. I had been walking with my Golden Retriever down a road when she wanted to play. So I started to run away from her as fast as I could down the road. Somehow, as she chased me, she caught my foot, and I tripped and went flying head first through the air.
What was strange was that I suddenly started to perceive everything in slow motion as I flew through the air. It was only a few feet and perhaps a fraction of a second until I flopped and skidded on my hands and knees, but it seems like several seconds to me. In fact, I can still see myself going through the air and landing on the ground in my mind's eye. It was really strange.
This same phenomena happened to me another time when I was running, tripped, and lost my balance. This time I stumbled forward for several steps before I hit the ground. Again, it seemed like I went into slow motion as I was stumbling forward. (Am I clumsy or what?)
Others experienced it
Other people have experienced this same phenomenon, as can be shown from the letters readers have sent in on their experiences.
No mention in some cases
On the other hand, there have been situations where you would expect the slow-motion effect to come into play where there is no mention of this effect. Examples are a parachutist whose chute doesn't properly open but yet lives to tell about it, or race car drivers who have lost control and gotten into an accident. I've never heard of any of them mentioning this slow motion effect.
Difficult to explain
The sensing of time and the perception of how fast it goes is an area that has not been studied very much. In fact, time itself is difficult to study. Some theories say that time is the 4th dimension.
It is well known that time seems to go faster when a person is having fun or when the person gets older. This could be explained by the fact that the person is not paying that much attention to time. Likewise, during an accident, the person's concentration on what is unfolding is great, thus making the perception of time slow down.
Another possible explanation would be that the slowing down of time is caused by something like the adrenaline in your body suddenly rushing to help you try to control your fall.
Present explanations are not completely satisfying.
In certain stressful situations--such as accidents--time seems to go into slow motion for the person. Usually he or she can recall everything vividly for a long time afterwards. Many have had the experience, but there are also dramatic cases where there is no mention of the effect. One explanation for the perceived slowing of time may be excess adrenaline in the body, but there have been no major studies on this.
Observe what you experience
Resources and references
Brain Areas Critical To Human Time Sense Identified - From Daily University Science News
Theory of subjective time perception - From Halfbakery.com
Circadian fluctuation of time perception in healthy human subjects - From Accelerated Learning Online
Time - By Dr. Roy Mathew, Professor of Psychiatry and Associate Professor of Radiology, Duke University Medical School
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Sensing in Slow Motion