Neuroscientists have all the fun. When we physicists think about the fundamental nature of time, it largely involves standing hopefully in front of a blackboard and writing the occasional equation, or at best sending clocks on strange journeys. All in the service of very good ideas, of course. But when I give talks about these wonderful ideas, I learn that what people care more about are down-to-earth questions about aging and memory. So not only do neuroscientists get to tackle those questions directly, but they do so by dropping people from tall buildings. How cool is that?
David Eagleman is an interesting guy, as a recent New Yorker profile reveals. Mild-mannered neuroscientist by day, in his spare time he manages to write fiction as well as iPad-based superbooks. But his research focuses on how the mind works, in particular how we perceive time.
I’ve written previously about how, as far as the brain is concerned, remembering the past is like imagining the future. Eagleman studies a different neurological feature of time: how we perceive it passing under a variety of different conditions. You might be familiar with the feeling that “time slows down” when you are frightened or in some extreme environment. The problem is, how to test this hypothesis? It’s hard to come up with experimental protocols that frighten the crap out of human subjects while remaining consistent with all sorts of bothersome regulations.
So Eagleman and collaborators did the obvious thing: they tied subjects very carefully into harnesses, and threw them from a very tall platform. The non-obvious thing is that they invented a gizmo that flashed numbers as they fell, so that they could determine whether the brain really did speed up (perceiving a larger number of subjective moments per objective second) during this period of fear.
Answer: no, not really. There is a perceptual effect that kicks in after the event, giving the subject the impression that time moved more slowly; but in fact they didn’t perceive any more moments than a non-terrified person would have. Still, incredibly interesting results; for example, when you’re afraid, the brain lays down memories differently than when you’re in a normal state.
Obviously, of course, these findings need to be replicated. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find some grad students and a tall building.