News Item: Neuroscience

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Fear Slows Time or Not

Many people who have experienced terrifying experiences report that time slows down, a phenomenon known as time dilation.  Writing in his Psychology Today website, Jeff Wise described an experiment in which researchers sought to discover whether the brain actually does something, like speed up sensory input and cognitive processing, or whether it just seems that way in retrospect.

Using subjects and a thrill ride that entailed a very long free fall, he first had them estimate how long it had taken them to land (in a net).  Not surprisingly, they guessed it took longer than it did.  Then he strapped onto their wrists a device that flashed numbers just fast enough to be imperceptible by someone in a neutral state.  If the brain did speed up, he figured, then subjects would be able to read the numbers.  They couldn’t.

He concluded that fear doesn’t speed up perception and processing;  it simply enables more detailed memory.  The hypothesis states that remembering more makes elapsed time seem longer.

One experiment does not a conclusion prove and needs replication.  Perhaps reading those numbers just didn’t qualify as necessary for survival.  Additional research using imaging techniques to uncover what goes on in the brain during heightened states of fear could contribute to greater understanding of time dilation.

Something different must be going on in the brain to accumulate far more details than usual, if that’s in fact what does happen.  Certainly, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that the brain would evolve to pay closest attention to those things that are perceived as most dangerous.

Crime and accident victims, survivors of childhood abuse, and others, describe an acuity of perception and altered cognitive state of knowing that differs markedly from ordinary experience, shifts that often result in life-saving decisions and actions.  This research raises interesting questions that call for further exploration before conclusions can be reached.