Overestimation of time duration is often reported during brief, dangerous or possibly life threatening events, like car accidents, robberies or attacks. Observers mention that time feels like slowing down and everything seems to move in slow motion. Does time resolution really increase during the event or is it all an illusion?
Chess Stetson, Matthew P. Fiesta and David M. Eagleman (2007) decided to test this hypothesis. Using a hand-held device to measure speed of visual perception, they made volunteers free fall for 31 m before landing safely in a net. This device displayed a series of digits in high speed, so that they couldn’t be read by the by the participants. The idea was that if time really slows down while we experience a frightening event (free falling), the participants could successfully read some or all of the digits displayed on the device’s screen. In addition to that, after landing they were asked to make duration judgements about their fall and the fall of others.
Although the participants free-falling from 50 meters experienced a duration expansion, no evidence of increased temporal resolution was found. Contrary to the initial hypothesis, they failed to read the digits that were displayed on the hand-held device. The results of this study don’t support the hypothesis that subjective time as a whole runs in slow motion during frightening events. The researchers suggest that the slowing of time that’s reported is a function of our recollection and not perception:
“The involvement of the amygdala in emotional memory may lead to dilated
duration judgments retrospectively, due to a richer, and perhaps
secondary encoding of the memories. Upon later readout,
such highly salient events may be erroneously interpreted to have
spanned a greater period of time.”
You can read the original study here.
Changing Time and Emotions – Pierre-Yves Geoffard & Stéphane Luchini (2007)
Time and the Brain: How Subjective Time Relates to Neural Time – David M. Eagleman, Peter U. Tse, Dean Buonomano, Peter Janssen, Anna Christina Nobre & Alex O. Holcombe (2005)