Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Passage of Time

There was a really good half-hour programme on Radio 4 today (you can hear it here). Tempus Fugit was an exploration of human perception of the passage of time. Not only did I find the subject absorbing but I also found the way scientists have tackled the subject remarkably inventive. For example, when we are intensely frightened (during a car accident, for example) we seem to percieve time going by more slowly than usual (a phenomenon known as "time dilation").. One researcher, Dr David Eagleman, devised an unforgettable experiment to see if it in fact we actually do.

Scary fairground rides turned out not to be scary enough to provoke the effect, so Eagleman took to dropping human guinea-pigs from a 150 foot tower and catching them in a net: three seconds of free-fall terror. Strapped to their wrist they had a device with lights on which flashed so fast they couldn't be seen to be flashing unless the person looking at them really was percieving time to be passing more slowly than usual. It made for great radio: they always say the difference between radio and television is that on the radio the pictures are better. It left me feeling quite dizzy.

The upshot of the experiment was that although subjects thought their perception of time had slowed down during the fall, the lights had not been seen to flash. Their minds were playing tricks on them. The latest theory is that time appears to slow down because of the way we lay down memories of frightening events. It's a shame, really. The idea that we really could slow down our experience of a passing moment was a very attractive one.

24 comments:

Totalfeckineejit said...

Dang! That is a pity.Interesting experiment though.Must have a listen to the whole programme.Tanxzs.

Niamh B said...

They should've studied kids in a double class of their least favourite subject in school.
Wouldn't have been such an exciting radio programme though, perhaps.

Titus said...

Bah! I'm sure it does. Redesign the experiment!
Must try an catch this on the iPlayer - thanks.

Poetikat said...

I can attest to the "time dilation" theory. When I was 11, I was struck from behind by my friend's bike and thrown off (the reason being a little boy had stepped out into my path holding a toy truck).
The whole sequence of time was like a dream, in slo-mo. Even after all these years, I can still recall it's progress moment-by-moment.

You find the most fascinating things, Dominic.

Poetikat said...

Aaaaah!!!! "Its progress".

Poet in Residence said...

Dominic, I love this off the wall science. I'll have a listen to your LINK. Many thanks. Gwilym

John Hayes said...

Fascinating: perception is reality except when it comes to flashing lights!

The Weaver of Grass said...

How does this relate to "a watched kettle never boils?"

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for the comments everyone - yes, judging by what they said on the programme it has everything to do with bored schoolchildren sitting through "double whatever" and watched kettles.

I've had terrifying slow-mo moments too. It's a shame it's just the way we remember them. It would be nice to think we had a capacity to experience things more slowly.

It's amazing how quickly time passes when blogging/surfing the net or doing something similarly absorbing (what Swiss referred to the other week as "time vampires". Now, if they were real, that really would be interesting!)

Rachel Fenton said...

It makes sense for frightening events to slow down - to give us more time to react...maybe it's a brain coping mechanism to buy ourselves more time...I've been in a car crash and itwas only the final few seconds before impact which changed my perception...it really was slooooooooooooow. I observed so much in that moment...

..the thing with this experiment is, the people knew they were going to be caught...

Poet in Residence said...

Funny what the woman said about Horse Time.

It's the same when I'm running in the woods. Time really flies. Sometimes, if I'm going along really well, got my breathing right and have no aches and pains, the one-and-a-half or two hours can pass so quickly it seems like half or three-quarters of an hour.

swiss said...

i was slightly disappointed, and maybe lots of it was due to the raido 4 nature of the programme, about the cultural assumption inherent in the way the programme is made i.e. time is linear. once you have that conceptual model everything else follows, except if it isn't in which case we're all in a different area. which marcus du sautoy was kind of hinting at but to do so we'd have to get into a whole other area of cultural perception/social evolution etc.

whihc is all a bit time consuming. that scad thing looks like a laugh tho. i think i could do with a shot of that....!

tony said...

High-definition radio! On the subject of Time.......check out this book sometime. If you can get past the "new-Ageiness" of it..........It has some interesting things to say on the subject.

Dominic Rivron said...

RF: That's why they went for something so extreme. I think they tried all sorts, but nothing "safe" short of scad diving was quite scary enough to create a "slow-mo" experience.

PiR: When I'm running I find my perception of time alternates - it flies by, but then I "come round" and it drags. Then it starts to fly by again and the process repeats itself.

swiss: Yes. Time is profoundly, impenetrably odd to a human and a programme that developed that side of it all would be very interesting.

Scad diving - not sure I dare!

Tony: It certainly looks whacky at first glance! I'm reminded of the British Taoist Master I saw on telly who, when asked if there was life after death, remarked that you would have to ask a dead Taoist Master, but I'll have a look.

swiss said...

i have to make an admission in that i don't believe in linear time.

which puts me in the same ball park as this guy
http://noorderlicht.vpro.nl/dossiers/4032610/hoofdstuk/4032611//

video's well worth a watch. book's not bad either

Dominic Rivron said...

Same here. Seem to think Einstein didn't think time was linear either, so this is clearly the cool ballpark to be in. Nothing illustrates the fact that our perception of the universe is limited (if that's even the right way of putting it) by our human "wiring" more than our maddeningly elusive awareness of time.

If I had a maths shaped brain (which I don't) I would be interested in putting together Penrose's speculations about quantum mechanics and consciousness with Einstein's ideas about non-linear time. Perhaps one of the functions of consciousness is to anchor us in a linear perception of time...

I'll check out your link.

swiss said...

given the above you definitely need to be sitting down with a cup of tea and enjoying.

the guy is cool, eccentric in that way that english eccentrics seem to get just right. i'd love to meet him.

Poet in Residence said...

I have often experienced a strange time-wrap, for lack of a better word, on waking in the middle of a dream.
It's some unusual sudden noise that perhaps wakes me, perhaps a pan lid falling off a shelf in the kitchen and landing with a sudden clang. Of course. I immediately wake, I know that's true, because I hear the noise dying away as the lid spins slowly to a stop.
But the point is, I've constructed a whole complicated dream scenario around this sudden noise. I may have dreamt that I was taking an old car to have the exhaust repaired when it suddenly fell off, or I was up a tree and dropped a handsaw, etc.
It's all very strange, this time thing. I'll have a look at the website mentioned by tony a bit later. Good choice of subject.

Get Off My Lawn! said...

Who was looking at their wrist while in free fall? Some serious control issues with this experiment. Do you think the time dillation thing is some sort of fight or flight response? Maybe that's what Einstein's theories really are. An expression of the Universe's fight or flight response.

Pauline said...

the trick is to never look at a clock - then you can slow time down or speed it up as you like ;)

the watercats said...

there was a t.v thing on quite recently with that grey haired japanese professor fella (who's name escapes me).. it was a series about time, and although most of the things went completely over my head, there was an interesting and simple experiment he did.
He went into town and stopped a test number of people, a percentage of young (from teens to 30ish) and a selection of obvious older people) He simply asked them to estimate when five minutes was up,(may have been more or less can't remember).
The young test group invariably went over the time, the oldies estimated too soon, suggesting that the older you get, the quicker time seems to pass!
I thought this was great!

Dick said...

Yes, it was fascinating programme. Precisely the kind of in depth yet accessible investigation that defines the best of Radio 4.

BwcaBrownie said...

I came to say 2 things that earlier commentors already did:
Poetikat's:
I too, still recall every second of a convoluted car crash, and Dominic's online time theory: an hour just flies by when one is online.
So many good blogs to read ...
and funny ones.

ArtSparker said...

Odd though - trauma in an accident causes a little slice of time to disappear - that is, one remembers just before and just after, but not during, in retrospect. At least, others than myself have also found it true.