May 20, 2020 9:47 AM   Subscribe

When Bad Things Happen in Slow Motion (Nautilus): "Retired fire chief Richard Gasaway refers to this apparent slowing down of time in tense situations as tachypsychia, which roughly translates as “fast mind.” “This phenomenon afflicts many first responders,” Gasaway claims, based on hundreds of interviews he has conducted for his research, blog, and speaking engagements on “situational awareness.” Bolstered also by what he judges to be personal experiences of tachypsychia, Gasaway has come to consider it as a sometime component of the overall stress response. For first responders, the phenomenon is dangerous, he says, because it can warp situational awareness and decision-making processes. But is tachypsychia real, or an illusion?"
posted by not_the_water (16 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
That experiment only measures ‘changes in visual perception speed in stressful situations’ not anything to do with our perception of time. It’s flawed because our visual perception and primary image processing are limited by the time the chemical reactions take. If it’s a blur going in, it’s a blur going out. (Out to consciousness/higher processes/memory/temporal lobe/etc.)

I have experienced this 3 times: the first time, doing two 360s in a volvo (once around, then over into and out of a ditch), once getting mugged (when time slowed down, I was fully able to analyze their weapons, remember what to do in these situations, run, and yell ‘fire’. (the lights in every window popped on instantly for blocks around, they got scared and ran away. It was awesome!)), and 9/11 when I got stuck in a mob by the #7 building when the first tower fell, on rollerblades. I definitely feel it ends ASAFP, like, as soon as you solve the problem. For 9/11 it was ‘cling to lamppost.’ ‘Effect ends.’
Also I guess ‘every time I’ve ever dropped something ever,’ right? And it ends as soon as I catch the thing. Or don’t.

But usually if I want to make it happen I just shove a propane cylinder into an asthma inhaler and write ‘jet’ on the side in magic marker.
(the magic marker is important. the fumes are the catalyst.)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:58 AM on May 20 [7 favorites]

Also super kick-ass things like walking away from explosions and sexy babes getting out of swimming pools happen in slow-motion.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:36 PM on May 20 [4 favorites]

I find the most interesting thing to be the reader reactions. Faced with the idea that time slowing is an artifact of memory rather than the perception in the moment, there is an immediate reaction of "It's NOT an effect of our memory! Because this happened to me once, and I REMEMBER exactly how it happened!"

The idea that our own memories are unreliable is just a tough nut to swallow. The phenomenon of chronostasis still blows my mind. Your brain doesn't just "ignore" the blur during eye movements. It retroactively patches your memory to think you were looking at the target the whole time!
posted by CaseyB at 12:53 PM on May 20 [11 favorites]

When I was young was hit by a large truck everything was super slo mo. I remember trying to explain to a classmate in 4th grade that seconds could be longer than minutes. She didn't buy it and stuck to traditional time standards.

When I did MMA I could land punches and kicks in slo mo, but the fights themselves were instantaneous afterwards.
I had a scuba cylinder fail and I remember having lots of time crawling across a wreck while holding my breath to think about how it was a stupid way to die. However, with one breath hold I doubt it was more than 5 minutes or so.

I think the perception of slo mo is real but that it is the brain lying to itself. As per usual.
posted by pdoege at 12:55 PM on May 20

FWIW I did a little bit of research into time perception when I was working on one of my graduate degrees--in this case, perception of time while listening to different kinds of music.

The main result in that situation was one of that lots of other researchers have found--that when in the middle of an event with a relatively low density of interesting things happening, during the event you have the perception that time is moving very, very slowly. The event with relatively few interesting things happening seems to drag on and on and last forever.

But if you ask people how long in total has elapsed, they will invariably underestimate the total elapsed time by a pretty considerable amount.

For an event that has a high density of interesting things going on, people will say time is just flying by during the event, but when asked to estimate the entire time elapsed at the end, they will invariably overestimate the elapsed time by a considerable amount.

So during a more boring time period (say a slow movement of a Beethoven Symphony--that was the kind of stimulus I was using to measure the effects) people will feel like time is dragging by so, so slowly but then will UNDERestimate the actual time elapsed by a significant amount.

On the other hand if the people listen to a movement with really fast moving peppy things going on they will say during the event that time was moving along really quickly but at the end they will significantly OVERestimate the total time elapsed.

It's something of a paradox because your impression is the time is dragging-dragging-dragging and the thing is taking forever to get finished. 5 minutes on the clock seems like 20 to our internal clock. But when asked to estimate the elapsed time, we underestimate it by a considerable amount.

The reasons for both ends of the paradox are pretty basic psychology: In the moment, if not much is going on it leaves you with a lot of time left over to ruminate on how slowly things are moving and how it is not 100% engaging your attention. So you classify it as time dragging. Whereas the fast-moving peppy music engages your attention far more completely, leaving you little time to think about anything else such as how long the movement has been going on or "I'm bored" type of things. In short, more complete absorption of attention leads to the impression that time is flying by more quickly, in large part because you don't have a lot of mental capacity left over to ruminate about such things.

By contrast, at the end we reconstruct time intervals by going through our memory of the time and recalling how many different things are in our memory that happened during that time. So for a slow-moving relatively boring time period you remember relatively few things and estimate that a relatively short amount of time has past.

If a lot of interesting things happen in the time period then when you are searching your memory for what happened during that time period you remember a whole lot of things and so your time estimate is, on average, actually longer than the actual time that passed.

Altogether, pretty interesting the different mental processes involved. I would guess this "fast mind" thing is another phenomenon altogether. But still in might be related in the sense that if you are hyper-aware and registered a lot more 'interesting' details in a short time period then that is really going to distort your sense of how much time has passed. You'll likely have the impression that a much longer time period has passed than actually has.
posted by flug at 1:34 PM on May 20 [8 favorites]

Most of your life is fairly uneventful. Minutes, hours and days blur into one another. Then something truly dramatic or interesting happens, you're reacting to everything and you remember every little moment of it, or feel like you do. In your memory time seems to have slowed down. How else was I able to do an think so much?
posted by Dumsnill at 1:41 PM on May 20

I once jaywalked with a friend across a busy highway (her idea, not mine) and fell flat on my ass halfway across. She said, "I saw your whole life flash in front of my eyes!"
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:50 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

My most intense tachypsychia experience was during a motorcycle crash. I was about halfway through passing a semi at about 85mph when I realized something was amiss, my bike began wobbling, but I thought it was wind buffeting and would work itself out. Instead, the wobbles became increasingly violent and before I knew it, the bike was sending sparks across the asphalt as it slid away from me, and the pavement was getting closer. I had enough time to think, "Oh. Well, shit. I guess I'm going to crash. What do I do?" I remembered something that I had read long ago about how people who were relaxed during an accident sustained fewer injuries, and forced myself to relax as I hit the ground faster than I ever had before, tumbled and slid for what felt like forever. I was oddly calm, like I didn't even have enough time to be afraid.

I was wearing full gear, which probably saved my life (or at least some extensive skin grafts), and only ended up with some scrapes and a minor wrist fracture. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds that I was in the air, it didn't throw me very high, but those few seconds felt like bullet time to me.

I don't doubt that memory detail density plays a strong role in warping the perception of time these cases, and I don't think I was able to physically react faster than normal even if it did feel like it at the time. I do wonder if turning off normal perceptual filters, opening the floodgates of the senses, and being 100% in the moment recording everything, might not allow us to think and process slightly faster in these situations? Increasing the speed of our mental connections? I wonder how a version of that experiment might go if they asked the participants to solve a problem in that state, recall details from memory, or notice details of their surroundings instead.
posted by Feyala at 2:51 PM on May 20 [2 favorites]

> That experiment only measures ‘changes in visual perception speed in stressful situations’ not anything to do with our perception of time.

BTW this was the actual point I was getting at with my lengthy comment above. If you somehow have way more 'perceptitrons'* than normal impinging on your consciousness during a certain short period, because of the increased visual perception speed, then ipso facto you are going to perceive that time period as much, much longer than it really was.

Because, literally, we gauge time periods by feeling our way through the maze of thoughts and perceptions we have for that time period, and gauging how many of them there were. So if you perceive many remembered perceptions from that period, you are going to gauge it as longer--perhaps much, much longer--than it really was by the clock.

Humans don't have an internal clock inside them that tells them "three seconds have passed" or whatever. Instead we have these approximations and heuristics, such as going over your memory recall of the event.

* By 'perceptitrons' I mean the 'smallest unit of perception', ie, the one that is perceived and encoded and put into memory by your brain. I think there are actual technical terms for this kind of thing, and also way way better definitions, but I can't really remember them precisely and also can't be arsed to look them up because I'm lazy.
posted by flug at 3:55 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

It's an effect of Adrenaline on the brain, like tunnel-vision & disorientation.
posted by ovvl at 4:23 PM on May 20

I find the most interesting thing to be the reader reactions. Faced with the idea that time slowing is an artifact of memory rather than the perception in the moment, there is an immediate reaction of "It's NOT an effect of our memory! Because this happened to me once, and I REMEMBER exactly how it happened!"

The thing that strikes me about this is that any experience you can already talk about is necessarily already a memory, and the knife edge of the “moment” is so infinitesimal that it nearly doesn’t even make sense to talk about. In that case, nearly everything we’re taking about when we talk about perception is memory, and the only relevant distinction is between short and long term. In that case, it still seems important to distinguish between the plasticity of long term memories and the way that short term memory seems to mediate our experience of...experience.
posted by invitapriore at 5:36 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

I've experienced it twice that I recall. The first was when a small plane crash-landed (i.e., no landing gear) onto the opposite lane of an interstate—I was traveling with my parents, it was night, and we'd been watching the plane aproach, initially puzzled as to what it was. It touched the pavement and skidded, shedding sparks, barely missing an eighteen-wheeler ahead of it, right as it came abreast of us. We couldn't have had a better view of the whole event. No one was injured; and after helping the couple and their two kids off their plane, my dad and a couple other people managed to push/turn the plane so it's left wing wasn't obstructing the road. The whole thing seemed to happen slowly (the crash part) and my memory of it is still vivid.

The second time was a highway motorcycle accident. An interstate off-ramp, actually. I was traveling about 50mph. Oddly, the moments before the bike went down are just fragments of instants in my memory; but my body tumbling and sliding on the dirt/asphalt all seemed to pass slowly. I was strangely calm; at one point the back of my helmented head slammed into the pavement and I thought, "wow, that was bad—it's good that I'm wearing a helment".

I'm willing to believe that it's possible for the brain to be especially focused during such events and thus, to some degree, react more quickly. I don't believe that amounts to very much and doesn't account for the experience. I feel pretty sure this is an artifact of memory and recollection, per flug's explanation.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:49 PM on May 20

From an evolutionary point of view, what is more likely to be retained: an ability to prioritise the assessment of and reaction to present danger over all other mind processes, effectively "speeding up" the perception, or an ability to memorise it in detail to... do what? Of course animals can use past experiences to guide them but not when they are dead. I'd argue that the second phenomenon is caused by the first.
posted by hat_eater at 5:05 AM on May 21

Spandrels. Every trait is not necessarily an adaptation.

There is a large amount of evidence linking stress/arousal with memory formation and the "strength" of those memories, while there is little evidence for objectively accelerated cognition under stress. Strong memory formation under stress is itself probably an adaptation given the obvious benefits. Parsimony and a lack of evidence for objectively accelerated cognition indicate that this subjective experience is simply a secondary effect of memory formation under stress, and the recall of those memories.

You'd also need some plausible mechanism for accelerated cognition—the brain doesn't have a clock rate that can be adjusted. The speed of signal propogation is determined by the electrochemical processes involved. It's true that areas of the brain and the brain as a whole can be more or less active, but you'd need to demonstrate that adjustments of greater or lesser parallelization in service to the task of conscious decision making was something brains can do, and before you go looking for evidence you should consider whether there could be any benefit of parallelization given the likelihood of various bottlenecks. Furthermore, if brains had this ability, then unless there's a large metabolic cost, they'd run this way most of the time we make conscious decisions. If there is a large metabolic cost, that should be easily measured empirically and directly correlated with the subjective experience. I don't believe such evidence exists.

So, again, the subjective experience of "accelerated cognition" is more parsimoniously explained as a by-product of memory formation under stress.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:16 PM on May 21

Good musicians have this on demand. I'm not good. I've been lucky enough to trip over a threshold a few times. We make eye contact and we know we are "inside it". I find myself playing fast bits feeling a surprising 'why is this so easy? oh. the time thing.'
posted by j_curiouser at 12:18 PM on May 24

It’s real! Long story short...there was an accident and what I will never forget is that scream and the leaves falling from a tree in super slow motion! Just like in the movies.
posted by slt91766 at 1:29 AM on May 31

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