Does time really slow down

Time slows down. Or does it? To find out, we’ll need to look at the miraculous survival of Jeb Corliss.[1]

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The incident

People like Jeb are the reason for the word Daredevil. In his free time, Jeb will jump off the side of a cliff with nothing but a wingsuit and small parachute – about as close as a human can get to flying.

We expect a few bruised knees when learning to ride a bike. When you’re learning to wingsuit, a mistake or mishap won’t bruise your knees. You die. Only Jeb didn’t.

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It was like any other jump. Jeb had done this a hundred times before. Off he went, leaping from the cliff.

He soared through the air at a speed of almost 300 kilometres, still shy of the 400 kilometres an hour these suits can reach. He manoeuvred down the mountain, wings by his side. The force of the air is so strong that the skin on your face becomes cartoon-like, flapping uncontrollably.

He was coming in low. It was a natural ramp in the mountain. He needed to clear the end where the mountain dropped away so he could launch his parachute. A crack rang out. Jeb collided with the very edge of the natural ramp and flung out like a rag-doll.


Six seconds

That’s how long Jeb had from the time of the collision to hitting the ground. But for Jeb, it felt like minutes, even longer. Two thoughts raced through his mind: I do nothing and die instantly, impacting with the cliff face, or do I pull the cord and face an agonising death on the ground?
Jeb focused his strength and ripped the cord down despite his injuries. He hit the ground, and against all odds, he survived.

When recounting those 6 seconds, Jeb explained just how long it felt. He was having many conversations with himself: contemplating what would happen, what to do, and what his family will think.

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Did time slow down?

The answer is yes… and no.

Time only slowed down when Jeb was remembering the events. When they were unfolding, time was just as it has always been. So what’s happening?

Stress.

We all have an experience like Jeb’s, an extremely stressful event that we are certain felt like an eternity. While in reality it didn’t, our feelings are genuine. 

Your brain is lazy; it likes to sit on autopilot. In autopilot, many of your senses are a best-guess construction. Your brain will fill in your surroundings with what it thinks should be there.

When you’re stressed, there’s no time for this laziness. Like Jeb, your brain comes online. It pulls in different sensory regions that are reserved for emergencies. You take in all of your surroundings with a level of detail rarely utilised.

Here is where the confusion of time comes in. When Jeb remembers what happened, it feels as though time slowed. The reason? Sensory overdrive. Because Jeb’s brain was processing so much more information than it usually does, it perceived these 6 seconds to be much longer than they were.

Sadly, time doesn’t slow, only our remembered perception of it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeb_Corliss

Published in Psychology, Science, Stories
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