See Inside February/March 2008

An Odd Sense of Timing

The question of how changes in the environment give rise to the subjective experience of time in our brain continues to challenge psychologists and brain researchers

In a classic scene in the science-fiction blockbuster The Matrix, life starts to run in slow motion. Guns are fired at the main character Neo, but the bullets fly as if through molasses—and our hero’s quickened reflexes allow him to jump out of harm’s way. Many of us have experienced a similar deceleration of events during accidents or other life-and-death situations. You see the tree branch on the road, hit the brakes, and it seems like an eternity before you know if you avoided the collision or were too late.

Of course, we know that physical time does not objectively slow down just because we are subjectively stressed out. But can we really think and act more quickly in a fear-provoking situation? Recently neuropsychologist David M. Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine decided to find out by asking psychology graduate students to jump 150 feet from a high metal scaffolding into the center of a safety net.

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