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The sensation of time slowing down during intense situations is a commonly reported phenomenon, but what's actually going on?

Hosted by: Stefan Chin

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Even if you’ve never seen The Matrix, you might be familiar with at least one classic scene. In the movie, a gunman attempts to shoot the main character Neo, only for Neo to suddenly realize that he can slow down time.

The bullets crawl by, and the protagonist casually bends out of the way and avoids death. This so-called “bullet time” might be only science fiction, but people do experience something similar. It’s called time dilation, or a slowing of time during really intense situations.

Everything from car accidents to gun fire to images of scary faces can trigger this phenomenon, but what’s trickier is figuring out what’s actually happening in our brains. So far, researchers aren’t totally sure, but they do have a few ideas. One idea is that time dilation is caused by your brain trying to take in as much information as possible.

According to some studies, your brain collects bits of information from your senses and uses them to establish an internal clock. The more information it processes, the more slowly that clock goes. For example, professional baseball players -- who are hyper-focused and are taking in a lot of details when they’re up to bat -- often say the ball slows down right before they hit it.

That’s been demonstrated in the lab, too: One 2012 study showed that, when 11 participants prepped for a specific action, their ability to detect extremely fast visual signals improved. This idea could also explain why time dilation is so commonly reported in life-threatening situations, like car accidents. In these cases, the brain is probably trying to pick up as much info as it can in an effort to keep someone safe.

After all, that speedy processing could prepare them to make some change -- like throwing up their hands -- that would keep them alive. Of course, there haven’t been lab studies of this, because if you tried to put your subjects in life-threatening situations, you’d have an ethics committee kicking down your door. But there is evidence for the phenomenon in simulations and as a whole.

Still, not all studies agree with this. For example, a paper published in 2007 in PLOS One says that there’s no increase in brain processing and that the illusion of time is just a twisted memory. In this experiment, researchers strapped 20 volunteers with perceptual chronometers.

These were devices programmed to flash between an image and its negative so quickly that it would be unreadable. That is, unless your visual processing was increased. The research team then dropped participants into a net from a height of about 30 meters.

The subjects were totally safe, but the drop was perceived as deadly enough to trigger time dilation. Sure enough, once they were back on the ground, subjects estimated that the drop took about 35% longer than it actually did. So, case closed, right?

Well, not really. Because, even with the seemingly life-threatening stimuli, the participants still weren’t able to read the chronometers. So it looked like time dilation wasn’t actually due to increased brain speed.

Something else had to be going on. The scientists suggested that maybe our brains are stretching out time after the fact. In other words, things only feel slower when you remember them.

Right now, though, the debate over what causes time dilation in our brains is still ongoing. The good news is, more research is starting to look at specific neurotransmitters and neurological causes that could be behind this phenomenon, but so far, the jury is out. Now, even though the “bullet time” in The Matrix is science fiction, someone had to make it look real on screen.

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