April 3, 2006

Thinking faster by altering your perception of time

People who undergo extreme short-term psychological stress often claim that time slowed down for them during the experience. Traumatic events like car accidents or lengthy falls often appear in slow motion to the person experiencing it.

Is this just a recall error? Or are people literally experiencing these events at an altered subjective time rate? If so, how could such a psychological phenomenon be accounted for? Obviously, time is not really slowing down -- but something is happening to the psychological interpretation of time.

One possible answer is to compare the human brain's "clockspeed" to that of a computer's. Some scientists now suspect that slowed time elapsement is an evolved defence mechanism similar to our fight-or-flight response. When time appears to have slowed down, we have more subjective time in which to deal with a crisis situation. Put another way, extreme stress helps us to think faster.

One scientist looking into this phenomenon is David Eagleman from the University of Texas at Houston. At his 'Laboratory for Perception and Action' Eagleman is attempting to understand the neural mechanisms of time perception. His team combines psychophysical, behavioural, and computational approaches to address the relationship between the timing of perception and the timing of neural signals.

At the experimental level, Eagleman is engaged in exploring temporal encoding, time warping, manipulations of the perception of causality, and time perception in high-adrenaline situations. Ultimately, he hopes to use this data to explore how neural signals processed by different brain regions come together for a temporally unified picture of the world.

In one of his experiments, Eagleman had volunteers perform a backwards bungee jump freefall while he transmitted a rapid succession of numbers to an LED on their wrists. He found that during the fall they were successfully able to read the numbers, which under normal conditions would have appeared too fast. [I have to say, that is one of the most interesting and original experiments I've heard of in quite time some]

Thinking about Eagleman's research at a practical level, it is thought that a better understanding of these mechanisms will result in interventions that will help people process information at higher rates. This kind of 'think faster' augmentation would slow time down in a subjective sense, which would enable an individual to operate at a higher level of cognitive efficiency.

This theme has been explored in a number of science fiction stories. In Frank Herbert's Chapterhouse: Dune, the ghola Miles Teg was able to engage in extremely fast physical combat due to his ability to rapidly process information. Teg was able to subjectively experience time in extreme slow motion. Similarly, Neo in The Matrix was able to dodge bullets by altering his perception of time elapsement. And in Greg Egan's Diaspora, uploaded posthumans had to drastically slow down their internal clockspeeds when conversing with biological humans; clockspeeds in the real world varied dramatically from the clockspeed utilized in supercomputer 'polises.' Also in Diaspora, a group of posthumans altered their perception of time to such a slow rate that they could perceive the rising and fallings of geological structures such as mountains.

Here in the real world, such neural enhancements are rare, but not entirely impossible. It is thought, for example, that hockey ultrastar Wayne Gretzky was able to perceive the flow of the game at a slower pace than his competitors, giving him more subjective time to plan his attack. This may in fact be the case. At the height of his career, Gretzky was not just a 'little better' than other players, he was dominating to a degree never before seen in sport, breaking records by extreme margins. And this from a player who was physically unremarkable--in fact, below average.

Just what kinds of interventions could enable humans to 'warp time' is a topic of some speculation. A recent Discover article titled "The Mind in Overdrive" offers some possible solutions. Psychotropic substances are one possible answer, as drugs like cocaine and amphetamines have been known to alter subjective time for users. Also, meditating Buddhist monks claim to be able to perceive time differently; through their mental discipline, they may be recreating the same effect that Eagleman is documenting.

I'm certainly hoping that something like this will eventually become accessible. It will be interesting to see how much more productive and "aware" one might be with the benefit of these sorts of interventions. It may even create an alternative sense of subjective reality.

And it would surely come in handy the next time you need to dodge bullets.

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Anonymous said...

Great, thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...


Excellent and very thorough research on this topic. Sean Russell wrote a fiction book called "Initiate Brother" which described a monkhood which practiced a meditative technique called Tai Chi Quan. This mental ability enabled them to "slow the sand grains falling through an hourglass" and enable them to perform martial art feats that would play well in Hollywood.

Being a fairly advanced martial artist, I thought this might indeed be cool. I have experienced "fast time" in stressfull situations and thought that being able to control my perception of time would be a huge advantage.

I contacted a hypnotist. I figured that maybe some hypnotic regression combined with post hypnotic suggestion would secure me the ability to find "fast time" at will.

Unfortunately, I am such an individual who cannot be hypnotised at all. (I'm not sure whether to be proud of that fact or disappointed).

In your fact finding, when writing your article, did you see any reference to successfully altering time perception? Increasing speed of perception that is, the usefullness of slowing perception pales in comparision.


George said...

Thank you for the kind words. I suggest that you contact David Eagleman himself to get an answer to your question: