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Death and The Slow-Mo Effect
August 17, 2010 8:20 AM   Subscribe

Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, wanted to find out how the human brain processes time in a near death situation.

When David Eagleman was 8 years old, he went exploring. He found a house under construction — prime territory for an adventurous kid — and he climbed on the roof to check out the view. But what looked like the edge of the roof was just tar paper, and — you can feel it coming — when David stepped on it, he fell.

Whoosh … Thud.

David was fine. But between whoosh and the thud, something odd happened. As David remembers it, he noticed every detail of his surroundings: the edge of the roof moving past him, the red bricks below moving toward him. He even did a little literary analysis: "I was thinking about Alice in Wonderland, how this must be what it was like for her, when she fell down the rabbit hole."
posted by two lights above the sea (26 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
...the way this FPP is introduced makes it sound like the formerly distinguished but now stark-raving mad Dr. David Eagleman ("Doc Eagle") is running a clandestine "fear-studies" lab in the abandoned catacombs beneath Baylor College.
posted by griphus at 8:24 AM on August 17, 2010 [8 favorites]


I know I've seen this guy and his cool test method before, possibly via this previously.
posted by DU at 8:27 AM on August 17, 2010


Oh, I love this. I, um, suffered a gunshot wound to the chest when I was younger, and I noticed sensory experience was entirely different right up until they put me under for emergency surgery. I remember with crazy clarity, but slowed down too as if time was at a crawl, every aspect, including the lights on the ceiling in a bedroom, in the ambulance, in the hospital, the tube-y ceiling while they did the CAT scan, the faces hovering over me, the painkiller injections, Last Rites, everything so clear. I've often wondered about it.
posted by ifjuly at 8:29 AM on August 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


"Turns out, when you're falling you don't actually see in slow motion. It's not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work," David says. "It's something more interesting than that."

Umm yeah. I can't believe he outfitted those students with watches hoping they would be able to read flashes of light which they cannot do when not going through this.

"But if a car suddenly swerves and heads straight for you, your memory shifts gears. Now it's writing down everything — every cloud, every piece of dirt, every little fleeting thought, anything that might be useful.

This is just theory based on his personal anecdote...he would have better luck if he asked cops who talk to witnesses and victims what they remembered from when they are in situations like that. Eyewitness accounts are horrible.

I'm guessing it wouldn't back up his research...so it wasn't included.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:29 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


This post seems really thin to me - a link to Wikipedia and the transcript to the piece I heard on Morning Edition a few hours ago?
posted by muddgirl at 8:34 AM on August 17, 2010


This is just theory based on his personal anecdote...he would have better luck if he asked cops who talk to witnesses and victims what they remembered from when they are in situations like that. Eyewitness accounts are horrible. I'm guessing it wouldn't back up his research...so it wasn't included.

Indeed. A study of soldiers going through survival school training (which has some nice properties in terms of presenting uniform, realistic stressful situations) found that "the accuracy of eyewitness recognition...appeared to be greater for the low-, compared to the high- stress condition."

The whole thing smacks of 'flashbulb memory,' which hasn't held up very well under scrutiny. See in particular this study: Confidence, not consistency, characterizes flashbulb memories.[pdf]
posted by jedicus at 8:38 AM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


A bunch of us Houston Mefites just saw Eagleman at TedxHouston. He was a compelling speaker for sure.
His whole lecture was about the importance of acknowledging how very little we know about what's really going on, and advocating for possibility, and keeping questions open, rather than being so focused on answers. . He says he's a "possibilianist." My guess is, a lot of Mefites are, too.
posted by pomegranate at 8:38 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]




the transcript to the piece I heard on Morning Edition a few hours ago?

Some of us didn't hear it, and are happy to have our attention drawn to it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:42 AM on August 17, 2010


muddgirl: I'm sorry, it was my first post on the blue, and I thought it was good enough. Clearly, I am a failure.


Thanks to those who shared related links. Great stuff.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:45 AM on August 17, 2010


Some of us didn't hear it, and are happy to have our attention drawn to it.

Well, from the "Previously" link above, this series of blog posts goes into much greater detail.
posted by muddgirl at 8:48 AM on August 17, 2010


It really is just a theory. You think you are seeing/hearing extremely clearly, and maybe you are and maybe you aren't. You are gauging from the inside, and that you may be perceiving some extremely specific details seemingly accurately doesn't mean 'you are perceiving everything around you more accurately and in more detail.' There's some interesting slippage in extrapolation.

Just because the fever I got with swine flu meant sound seemed louder and clearer and more carefully detailed didn't make me less delirious.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 8:48 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I didn't say anything about failure.
posted by muddgirl at 8:48 AM on August 17, 2010


Reminds me of The Asphyx, where a scientist determines that the soul leaves the body a second or two before death, but only if the person is absolutely convinced that they're going to die. If the soul was then trapped with a machine of his invention, the person wouldn't die, and presumably would live forever.

So, he set about giving immortality to all the people he loved, and well, you can guess how that went.
posted by Malor at 8:49 AM on August 17, 2010


Even if it is unreliable (and I'm not so quick to dismiss personally; I recount really trifling details I remember to my family, who was there and remembers too, and they're always shocked I can), your perception to yourself is different, which is worth investigating too, though.
posted by ifjuly at 8:55 AM on August 17, 2010


This is just theory based on his personal anecdote...he would have better luck if he asked cops who talk to witnesses and victims what they remembered from when they are in situations like that. Eyewitness accounts are horrible.

I'm guessing it wouldn't back up his research...so it wasn't included.


It's more interesting than that, I think. The retina is actually part of the brain -- to the degree that you can detect neurological ailments by scanning it. So it was perfectly possible that the retina -- or the occipital lobes -- would work more efficiently under stress.

That result didn't pan out, and he actually reported that his hypothesis was wrong. How rare is that?

Anyway, that we take in a lot more information, and that the information is of far lower quality -- these are not contradictory observations. The more you collect, the less you verify.
posted by effugas at 8:56 AM on August 17, 2010 [5 favorites]


Just as an aside, this AskMe question the other day about great RadioLab episodes led me to listen to the one titled After Life, which had a short story by Eagleman read by the great Jeffery Tambor (it starts at the 6:30 mark in that first mp3 segment) that was so compelling I immediately ordered Eagleman's book of stories about the great beyond.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:58 AM on August 17, 2010


He could research this by taking the right drugs. It's made me a possibillionaire.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:59 AM on August 17, 2010


I am not so sure if the brain does not kick up the clock speed a bit when there is danger. I've made a few very rapid sets of reasonably complex reasoning (as compared to simply twitching away from danger, running, jumping, etc) that would normally take me some time to plod through.

I wonder if the memory effects are different between danger-to-oneself and danger-to-others. All of the times I have been involved in preventing harm to others, I have been unable to recall the initial stimulus, anything that happened, or even my own actions until the danger is over. First, I'm doing something prosaic and then, bink!, I'm somewhere else, usually in pain, and a little bewildered, having to guess at what happened. Something that represented danger to me, however, is crystal clear.

If we're looking at dangerous events in SP mode instead of SLP, is this just a byproduct of having a lot of adrenalin dumped into your body, or something else? What would this mechanism be? I do not think it is necessarily related to adrenalin, I've had small injections of it before, several times, without any noticed memory enhancement. What other interesting things are going on in the brain then? Acetylcholine? Blood flow to specific parts of the brain?

First step — we get the fMRI machine onto one very tall roller coaster and a PET scanner onto the other ...
posted by adipocere at 9:00 AM on August 17, 2010


I can definitely agree with the memory of some details. I hit a deer with my motorcycle and I can recall vividly the look in the deer's eye and the crunching sound my fairing made as I made contact. It seemed to take longer than it possibly could have.

Yet I have no memory of hitting the ground or sliding, which is interesting because that's when I broke my clavicle, two ribs and ground the skin off my left knee. After the fairing my next memory was looking up at the sky and realizing I wasn't dead.
posted by tommasz at 9:01 AM on August 17, 2010


tommasz: I had a similar experience when I was riding my bicycle and hit trolley tracks. I remember seeing the tracks, realizing that my angle was incorrect and that I was going to fall, and flipping over my handle bars. It all happened so slowly... but then I can't remember hitting the ground (I split my chin open, and required 8 stitches). I only remember untangling from my bike in the middle of the street with a bus looming over me waiting for me to get the heck out of the way, all at 'normal' speed. Whew. So yeah, freaky!
posted by two lights above the sea at 9:09 AM on August 17, 2010


jedicus,

excellent study you linked to. I highly recommend everybody looking over the results section.

Awesome.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:34 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't it because adrenaline allows for more rapid thought?
posted by Ironmouth at 9:53 AM on August 17, 2010


Fight or flight or think really hard.
posted by hellphish at 11:40 AM on August 17, 2010


Tommasz, 2lights: concussion effect probably wiped your memory buffers, preventing them from getting into your brain.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:37 PM on August 17, 2010


A bunch of us Houston Mefites just saw Eagleman at TedxHouston. He was a compelling speaker for sure.

That's surprising to hear. I took a Biopsychology course he taught at Rice (across the street from Baylor) and thought that he was a poor lecturer who didn't do a great job getting students excited about material that could have – should have – been truly fascinating. Most of my friends in the course tended to entirely skip his lectures, actually. I will order his book right away though!
posted by halogen at 10:57 PM on August 17, 2010


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