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Aug 7inHacks'n'Tips

How To Do Time Dilation Like a Pro

Time dilation comes in two exciting flavours. First is the psychological sensation of time stretching out ...as though the world begins to operate in slow motion (while you continue to move and think at the same speed as before).

The second is a phenomenon in physics whereby time itself (and not merely our perception of it) changes.

[Before you read the rest of this article, if you have a stopwatch or even a clock nearby (tip: you probably have one on the device which you’re using to read this), time yourself. At the end of the article, DON’T look at your timer right away. Instead, write down how much time you think had passed, and then compare it to the actual time.]

Einstein predicted that as you accelerate towards the speed of light, time begins to slow down for you. At the kinds of speed to which we're used to travelling on Earth, this effect is so small that it can be practically ignored. However, as bodies get closer to light speed, it starts to become really quite important.

Don't worry though, we're not going to be thinking about the physics kind here. Instead we'll focus on the first ...the psychological.

Among victims of accidents, crime, or wars, there is a commonly reported feeling of "time slowing down" during life-threatening moments. Eager to acquire a better understanding of this feeling, and what it might mean, David Eagleman set up an experiment whereby volunteers were dropped from a 150ft-high platform onto a safety net. During the fall, they were shown a number for a very small period of time (it was quickly "flashed" before them on a small digital display).

Eagleman thought that the feeling of peril induced by the drop might kick their brains into a higher gear, whereby their perception of time was altered. The experimenters wondered if subjects would be able to read the number after being exposed to it for less time than they would normally require to register the image.

Although the fall lasted only 2,6 seconds. Most of the subjects reported it as lasting longer than 4 seconds. So, right away we have what appears to be evidence supporting the idea that subjects experienced the psychological sensation of time slowing down.

Neuroscientist Peter Tse, is aware of just how, when we consider our evolutionary history, we should really expect to encounter some sort of mechanism for responding to danger with a momentarily heightened amount of brain activity.

Although, contrary to what was expected, subjects could not generally recognise numbers faster while falling through the air, one of Eagleman's earlier studies had really quite incredible results...

In his lab game, named “Nine Square,” nine blue squares are arranged like a noughts and crosses board. After some time, one of the squares turns green. The subject playing the game has to click on the green square. To begin with, the square always moves to the next position exactly 200 milliseconds after the subject clicks the mouse. After some time though, this rate becomes random, and when the green square moves faster than before, it feels to the subject as though it has jumped before they clicked on it! 

Eagleman explains that this happens due to the brain's tendency to always be calibrating duration. He says “If every time you flip on the lights there is a 200-millisecond delay, your brain recognizes the pattern and edits out the delay. Flip the switch, and the lights seem to turn on instantaneously. But if you moved to a funky house where the lights really did come on instantaneously, it would appear that they came on before you flipped the switch. Your brain is temporarily stuck on the old pattern.”

While having people play Nine Square, Eagleman took brain scans using an MRI scanner, and so we know what was going on in their brains as they played. An area of the brain known as the "anterior cingulate cortex" is understood to activate only when different parts of the brain do not agree with one another. The MRI scans revealed that this area was in fact active as subjects played the game. Eagleman has ended up taking from this the idea that our minds have at least two clocks running together, one of which has the job of keeping a sort of general overall perception of time for us, while the other while the other in a way runs around after it tidying up little mistakes here and there.

OK, so you can write down how much time you think just passed, then check your timer. Please let us know if there was any difference. If so, was it big or small, and did time seem to pass quickly or slowly?

The comments box is hungry. :)