Did time slow down when I thought I was going to die?

A slide down an icy road reveals the marvelous inner works of our minds.

Did time slow down when I thought I was going to die?

Did time slow down when I thought I was going to die? 1024 768 Looking out Loud

This is a (longer than usual) 60-second daily dose of Dadspeak. Take a minute to look at the world with new eyes.

This morning’s January snowfall and icy roads reminded me of a terrifying event.

Many years ago I was working for an environmental company. One January day, I was driving a big work pickup truck down a two lane highway. A coworker was sitting next to me in the passenger seat. It was sleeting and the roads were icy. I was driving cautiously, but unaware of just how much black ice was under our tires.

Suddenly the tires gave way, and the truck started to slide. It felt like my driver’s side door was leading the way down the road. And just like in the movies, a semi truck was heading toward us in the other lane. My coworker started screaming at the top of her lungs.

I heard her screams, but only as a faint side note. I seemed to simultaneously have perfect clarity of the severity of the situation and what needed to be done. I carefully corrected the truck, only to flip it around the other direction. Now my passenger’s door was leading the slide down the road.

My entire mind focused, and somehow, after a few course corrections, I was able to straighten out the truck before flying into a ditch or into the grill of a semi.

The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a handful of seconds. But it felt like an eternity. I felt like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix. It was as if time slowed down, and I looked around at the near-frozen world, and found a way to stay alive.

This experience of time slowing down during a life-threatening experience is not uncommon. But what actually happens in these situations?

Did time really slow down? Or did my mind go into hyper-drive?

This question has been tested and the answer is a fascinating one.

Time does not slow down in this situation. Nor does your mind speed up. The slow-motion effect has to do with your memory.

In a life-threatening situation, a part of your brain called the amygdala (an almond-shaped blob involved in emotions) kicks into high gear, and calls all resources to attend to the situation. When this happens, your brain lays down extra tracks of memory in far richer detail than normally occurs.

Amygdala - The Science of Psychotherapy
The amygdala ties emotional meaning to memory

When this situation is replayed in your mind, this denser-than-usual memory gives the impression that the whole thing must have taken longer than it really did. Time did not slow down, it’s a trick of memory that happens in retrospect. You have more memory available to you, so it feels like more time must have passed.

But wait, what about in the actual moment? It was in the actual moment the truck was sliding that time seemed to stand still, not just when I reflected back.

The answer to this is easier to realize when you think about your experience from moment to moment.

Take vision, for example. When a lightwave hits your retina, it is translated into electrical energy, which passes down the optical nerve and into your brain for interpretation. Likewise with hearing. The cochlea in your ear translates a mechanical sound wave into electrical energy, which travels along the auditory nerve into your brain. And this process takes time.

It takes a few milliseconds to move those sight and sound signals from outside your body, through your nervous system, and into conscious awareness. The world you see in front of you right now is always very slightly in the past.

It’s as if consciousness is really more like an immediate memory, rather than pure awareness of the here and now.

You do not see the world in real time

Now back to the car. When I was sliding on that ice, my amygdala was laying down a crazy amount of extra information in my brain.

Milliseconds later, when that information—my immediate memory—became available to my conscious mind, I had an abnormal amount of instant information to draw from: I was aware that we were sliding sideways down the middle of the road, I saw the semi-truck coming towards us flashing his lights, I heard my coworker screaming next to me, I could feel the weight of the truck and the responsiveness of the steering wheel as I quickly searched for the sweet spot that would pull us back to safety.

Time didn’t slow down. I was perceiving a version of reality that was ever so slightly in the past. And my amygdala had filled that memory with a much richer, much more detailed awareness than normal conscious life allows.

Thanks amygdala.

And now you know that right now, you’re seeing a version of the world that is ever so slightly in the past. Isn’t that amazing?

– David Eagleman (2015). The Brain, chapter 2.
David Eagleman (2008). Human time perception and its illusions, in Current Opinion in Neurobiology.

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