February 11, 2009

Thinking faster by altering your perception of time - A SentDev Classic

This article from April 3, 2006 was inspired by the work of David Eagleman who will be guest blogging here next week.

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.


  1. I've experienced this sort of "time warp" falling forward while roller blading very fast. Strangely, I had time to cross my arms, tuck my chin and turn around so that I landed squarely on my back on the pavement. I walked away like nothing had happened.

    Again, while driving -- when another car crossed in front of me against the light -- I planned out and executed a 180 degree skid which prevented a potentially fatal accident. This was the opinion of the trooper who watched the entire thing happen. I don't know about the other driver's experience of time when he was arrested for reckless driving but perhaps time slowed down for him, too!

  2. Anonymous7:24 AM

    I once dodged a falling object which would have been fatal. In real time it was perhaps 3 seconds, it felt like 9, I saw details of it passing me that you don't have time to see normally. I had more time to think. I consciously became aware of the situation, had made the conscious decision to step backwards to dodge it, not side or forwards. No reflexes. I got only minor injuries from the splinters (the object landed 3 inches away from me). Everything was silent for 10 seconds until I yelled "Did you see that?! I almost died right there!" and people started talking.

  3. I can point out some research in social psychology on the topic of thought speed and perceived thought speed (see below). You could also look up the "flashbulb effect" as a way of explaining some apparent instances of fast thought.

    Psychological effects of thought acceleration. Pronin, Emily; Jacobs, Elana; Wegner, Daniel M. Emotion Vol 8(5)2008 p.597-612 American Psychological Association, US

    Six experiments found that manipulations that increase thought speed also yield positive affect. These experiments varied in both the methods used for accelerating thought (i.e., instructions to brainstorm freely, exposure to multiple ideas, encouragement to plagiarize others' ideas, performance of easy cognitive tasks, narration of a silent video in fast-forward, and experimentally controlled reading speed) and the contents of the thoughts that were induced (from thoughts about money-making schemes to thoughts of five-letter words). The results suggested that effects of thought speed on mood are partially rooted in the subjective experience of thought speed. The results also suggested that these effects can be attributed to the joy-enhancing effects of fast thinking (rather than only to the joy-killing effects of slow thinking). This work is inspired by observations of a link between "racing thoughts" and euphoria in cases of clinical mania, and potential implications of that observed link are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2008 APA, all rights reserved)

    Manic Thinking: Independent Effects of Thought Speed and Thought Content on Mood. Pronin, Emily; Wegner, Daniel M. Psychological Science Vol 17(9)2006 p.807-813 Blackwell Publishing, United Kingdom

    This experiment found that the speed of thought affects mood. Thought speed was manipulated via participants' paced reading of statements designed to induce either an elated or a depressed mood. Participants not only experienced more positive mood in response to elation than in response to depression statements, but also experienced an independent increase in positive mood when they had been thinking fast rather than slow--for both elation and depression statements. This effect of thought speed extended beyond mood to other experiences often associated with mania (i.e., feelings of power, feelings of creativity, a heightened sense of energy, and inflated self-esteem or grandiosity). (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2008 APA, all rights reserved)

  4. @nonuthin

    here's a link to the paper you mentioned (PDF): http://tr.im/gw1i

    Fascinating topic!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.