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Only 24hrs to live? Don’t worry, it will feel like a lifetime

The perception of time has got to be one of the hottest go to philosophical questions. What is time really? Is it linear, or do we just perceive it to be linear? Is it actually a loop? Or does it really have no form at all, and could we all magically become “unstuck” from time like Billy Pilgrim?

Well, all questions about the state of our universe aside, it cannot be denied that time has a funny way of behaving. When you’re busy, it tends to speed up. When you’re bored, it slows to a crawl. As you get older the years just seem to go by quicker and quicker.

But what about for animals that don’t live as long as we do? Or for animals that live longer? It’s common to joke about how long a day must feel to a fly (the assumption being flies only live 24 hours, which is actually incorrect. They live about 15-25 days), but how does the passage of time actually feel to a fly? Is it slower? Well, as it turns out, yes.

A recent article published by Scientific American talked about a study in the journal Animal Behavior in which scientists collected data on the brain responses of over 30 different species to light flashing frequencies. If you imagine our perception of time being like the frame rate of a camera, the idea here is that animals with a higher frame rate (who would perceive time as moving more slowly) would be able to see a light flashing at a higher frequency. To the animals with a slower frame rate, those fast blinking lights would blend together and look like a constant light. Again using the camera analogy, if you have a camera with an exposure time of one second, and a light blinking 10 times a second, you’re going to get a picture of a light. What does this have to do with time? Well just think about all those awesome high speed videos that let you watch random things happen in slow motion.

Photo by Donald Hobern

Good luck with that flyswatter human, I perceive time four times faster than you. Photo by Donald Hobern

The study concluded that animals with faster metabolisms (and therefore shorter lifespans) had higher “frame rates” than those with slower metabolisms (longer lifespans). In fact, they found that humans clocked in at around 60 hertz, dogs at 80 hertz, and flies at a whopping 250 hertz (rats for some reason got the short end of the stick at 39 hertz). So yes, time does seem to pass slower when you’re a fly.

But can we take this a step further? How does this theory apply to reports that in life or death situations time seems to slow down? I remember vividly an occasion some time ago when I was SCUBA diving and found myself in a situation that could very quickly and easily resulted in, well let’s just say with me having never had the opportunity to write this blog. Without telling the whole long story, the take home is that I had only a few seconds to make some pretty consequential decisions, but when it was happening it felt as though I had all the time in the world to figure out what was going on. The number of thoughts that were able to go through my head during those few seconds was extraordinary.

So what happened there? Did my brain go into hyper drive and I suddenly got a faster capture rate? For those few seconds, was I able to, dare I say it, be the fly? Well luckily for all of us, I heard an episode of Radiolab (is anyone sensing a theme here? Can anyone tell I’m minorly obsessed with this show?) about an experiment conducted by David Eagleman where he and a group of volunteers fell 150ft while looking at a specially designed wristwatch that flashed numbers just a little too fast for a person to read. The idea was that is time really slows down when you are afraid for your life, he and the other volunteers would suddenly be able to read the watch.

What he found was that while when asked how long they were falling the volunteers overestimated the time frame, they were still unable to read the watch. They¬†felt like time slowed down, but it didn’t really. So no, your ability to experience time doesn’t speed up when in a near-death experience. Instead what is happening is your brain figures out that this is kind of a big deal situation, and so it starts making new memories like crazy so that if you survive you remember what the hell happened and never do this again you crazy person! See, while we like to believe our brain is like a roll of film and what we see just gets recorded there, the truth is there is so much going on around us the brain has to pick and choose what information to store as memories and what information to ignore entirely. And your brain is crazy good at it. If you want to see just how good, this is a pretty good example. So when your brain thinks something really important is happening, like you know, almost dying, it’s going to take in and memorize as much information as possible so that you can remember what you did right (or wrong) in the future. Good job brain!