When Time Literally Stands Still

By Heather Ramsey on Saturday, June 13, 2015
City roads
“Idleness makes hours pass slowly and years swiftly. Activity makes the hours short and the years long.” —Cesare Pavese

In A Nutshell

Recent studies have found that our brains perceive visual information as a series of individual snapshots or still images, like the frames of a movie. If you suffer physical brain damage or strong emotions, the glue that holds the images together may break down. If so, you may see things in slow motion or even at a complete stop, as though you’re viewing the individual frames in a film.

The Whole Bushel

When Simon Baker experienced a strange headache one day, he took a warm shower to relieve the pain. Then things became downright eerie. “I looked up at the shower head, and it was as if the water droplets had stopped in mid-air,” he said. “They came into hard focus rapidly, over the course of a few seconds.” He could actually see the individual drops hanging in the air, with their shapes warped by the flow of air around them. It reminded him of how bullets appeared to move in a Matrix movie.

For 39-year-old Baker, the explanation for his strange perception was an aneurysm. Strokes and epilepsy often account for unusual perceptions of time. But it can happen to any of us, especially when we feel strong emotions.

As far as we know, our brains don’t have dedicated receptors to calculate time. Yet our brains do seem to have an internal clock, a kind of subjective time, which can be affected by our emotions and inputs to our other senses. Researchers have found that when we experience strong emotions, it distracts our attention from processing time. So events may seem to slow down for us. In other words, our subjective time becomes slower than actual time. An explanation often attributed to Albert Einstein describes it like this: “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

We can experience this slowing of time during emotional events, such as watching a horror movie that frightens us or seeing a car accident as it happens. No one’s sure exactly why this time-slowing occurs, but researchers believe that the physical arousal caused by fear—blood pressure rising, heart beating faster, pupils dilating—may affect our internal clocks temporarily because we’re distracted by our emotions.

As Baker’s experience showed, we can also have physical reasons why we perceive events in slow motion. Researchers at the University Hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, believe that V5, a part of our visual cortex, plays a role in calculating the passage of time. They used a magnetic field to stop the activity in V5 in their study’s participants. Although the researchers expected that the participants would have trouble tracking the movement of dots across a screen, which they did, the participants also struggled to estimate how long some dots were on the screen. The experts don’t know for sure, but they think our brain has a separate stopwatch for its motion perception system. Unless the brain is injured, they believe that system registers the speed of the things we see. For Baker, the warm temperature of his shower may have increased the problem by drawing blood away from his brain to his hands and feet.

Recent studies have also found that our brains perceive visual information as a series of individual snapshots or still images, like the frames of a movie. If you suffer physical brain damage or strong emotions, the glue that holds the images together may break down. If so, you may see things in slow motion or even at a complete stop, as though you’re viewing the individual frames in a film. For some people, visual processing goes out of sync with sensory inputs. So they may hear someone talking before they see that person’s lips move. The study of these phenomena is new, so we’re just beginning to learn why our perceptions of time can be so distorted.

Show Me The Proof

BBC: The man who saw time stand still
Brain Blogger: The Brain’s Stopwatch—Emotions and Time Perception; Brain Trickery—Seeing in Slow Motion