Why Does Time Slow Down in an Emergency?


Thirty five years ago, when I was an apprentice Fitter and Turner,  I had an instructor who had fallen from a gantry crane in South Africa. His fall was almost twenty metres to the ground. I remember to this day him describing the ordeal and the injuries he sustained. He used his personal experience to advocate to all of us young apprentices, not to take workplace safety lightly.

One thing that sticks in my mind about him recounting the experience was that he described the moment he knew he was falling, to the moment of impact. He described it as 'remarkably long'. His words were something like "I realised I was falling and had missed the opportunity to grab hold of anything, and so I braced for the impact. But it did not come, and I continued to fall, and fall. Long enough to think the situation through."

Yet falling 20 metres takes little more than a second. How can this be that someone who is in this situation can recount so much about such a minuscule amount of time?

An insight into this came to me twenty years later. I was traveling in a friend's car as the passenger. We were in a high speed zone and were doing 100 kilometres an hour when a thumping noise started underneath the rear seat. Lightly at first and then within a few seconds the noise became louder and was accompanied by shuddering throughout the vehicle in time with the noise.

Before either of us could comprehend what was actually happening, my friend lost control of the car and we began to spin out of control down the highway. Fortunately we were still heading straight down the road, we were just spinning instead of driving straight forward. I recall watching the trees on one side of the road pass by the bonnet of the car, followed by the road where we had just come from and then the lanes of the other side of the highway and then the road in the direction we were traveling and then a repeat. I recall saying to my friend something quite calmly like "Hmmm, this is not good."

My friend battling with the wheel was a little more vibrant. "Shi*! Shi*! Shi*!" is how I recall it.

What had happened was that a rear tyre had delaminated and essentially shredded, sending us into a spin. After about four spins (which took forever, mind you) we spun off the road into some bushes and came to rest uninjured yet shaken. Again, an accident that perhaps lasted 10 seconds or less but I had plenty of time to speak a sentence as had my friend, albeit not really a sentence.

Why do situations such as this seem to cause time to slow down?

It all comes down to our brain and it's inherent ability to try to keep us alive and look after us.

In an emergency or any situation that represents a clear and present danger, our brain wants to gather as much information as possible to allow us to seize any opportunity to escape the situation and to ensure that we learn all we can from the experience so that we don't make the same mistake again.

Think Neanderthal escapes being attacked by a Sabre-Toothed Tiger. The caveman brain basically says to itself "Remember all that you can because you nearly got yourself eaten. That smell, that barely audible growl, the sound of footsteps in the grass, the time of day, the location, these are all things to note so you don't end up in that situation again!"

In the modern world there are no Sabre-Toothed Tigers but plenty of other hazards. When an emergency happens our brains go into overdrive to take onboard as much about the situation as possible. Almost like biggest burst of caffeine you've ever had. Which seems to us that we can process information, see, smell, hear and think at a lightning speed causing the situation around us to appear to not be keeping up with how fast we are now processing our predicament.

Similarly, our vision is an important part of the information gathering process. Our peripheral vision shuts down to give us the ability to really focus on the problem at hand. Tunnel-vision is usually how we describe it. Our natural biology is ensuring that we have everything at our disposal to cope with what's happening.

So, the ability to go into overdrive is a natural human reaction to danger. Time doesn't slow down, but we certainly speed up.