Dear Science,

During a recent car accident, I could swear time slowed down. I could totally see the airbag deploy, feel the seatbelt pull tight along my chest in slow motion. My friend says this is bullshit. Does time actually slow down when you get into a car accident?

Eyes Accidentally Opened

Not really—at least according to a recent study by Chess Stetson, Matt Fiesta, and David Eagleman.

First, the experimenters determined if time actually does slow down in our minds during a scary event. Off to the amusement park! Volunteers were sent into a hundred-foot drop tower that ends in a net. ("This ride is the tallest in the park at 16 stories high... That's right—no bungee, no parachute, just you and the air. And the landing is smooth as silk.") The fall takes about two and a half seconds; the Texas trio asked the volunteers how long they thought they fell, and on average, people thought the fall took about a third longer than it actually did.

Okay, it's no big surprise that time seems to slow down during most any scary moment. But it could actually be from two different reasons. Is it like a movie, where during a critical moment our brains get amped up, and we observe more in a given moment of time? Or do we simply remember more detail from emotionally charged memories, filling in after the fact? How could the study tell the difference?

Enter the wrist chronometer of doom! A little LED display, attached to the forearm of the fallee, displayed a pair of digits by alternating between dark digits on a bright background and bright digits on a dark background. At a certain threshold speed of switching, it all ends up looking like a blank bright field—the display is switching too quickly to see the numbers anymore. For each person, the experimenters figured out this speed and set the chronometer to be a tiny bit quicker than the threshold. If the brain really does zip up during a scary moment, during the fall one could read the numbers that were changing too quickly just moments before. Could the volunteers do it? Nope. So, the extra detail we remember after something terrifying? Probably made up by our brains to fill in that extra third (or so) of perceived time.

Science can commiserate, however. During most of his bicycle accidents, time seemed to slow down for him as well—every crunching bone in cinematic detail. Seems we've both had a trick played on us by our brains. recommended

Briskly Yours,

Science

Send your questions to dearscience@thestranger.com.