Fear is a fascinating emotion. It can produce all sorts of unusual reactions: tightening in your muscles, a twisting in your gut, a spike in your heart rate, and the list goes on.
One of the most intriguing reactions is the time dilation effect, also known as “time slowing down”.
The other day, a friend of mine related the following story:
“I have been doing bushcraft/survival training since I was about 10 or so. When I was about 21, on one of the last trips I got to take with my grandpa, I ended up killing a bear with a throwing axe. (How bad-ass is that?) When it happened, it felt like my body had an adrenaline surge, and time seemed to slow down. Like you know when things go in slow motion in movies? It’s almost like that. It doesn’t affect everyone the same, the first few times it seems claustrophobic, because all the little things you aren’t actively paying attention to that your brain is registering via your senses get brought to the forefront.”
Pretty awesome, right? In this terrifying moment (being attacked by the bear), it felt like everything slowed down.
According to Psychology Today, “survivors of life-and-death situations often report that things seem to take longer to happen, objects fall more slowly, and they’re capable of complex thoughts in what would normally be the blink of an eye.”
“Fear does not actually speed up our rate of perception or mental processing. Instead, it allows us to remember what we do experience in greater detail. Since our perception of time is based on the number of things we remember, fearful experiences thus seem to unfold more slowly.”
It’s not that the brain actually stops time—it’s that the rush of adrenaline sends a surge of electrical activity through the brain that makes it work faster. Basically, our brains are able to absorb, process, and utilize information much more quickly in times of extreme stress or fear.
I find this a fascinating reaction, and one that I’ve used multiple times for my characters. But what’s interesting is that it won’t happen in EVERY situation. In one test, researchers found that it ONLY occurred when an object was moved toward a participant. Simply put, if our eyes/brains register a threatening object coming towards us, the time dilation effect kicks in. But if the threat remains static or moves away, it won’t.
I’ll have to remember this when I write my novels. Oncoming threats will slow down time, but other threats (visible and out of field of view) won’t!