When Life Flashes Before Your Eyes: A 15-Story Drop to Study the Brain’s Internal Timewarp

Nothing But Net To find out why time seems to slow during life-threatening events, our reporter took a 15-story drop at the Zero Gravity Thrill Amusement Park in Dallas. John B. Carnett

By Steven Kotler in Popsci Magazine

A few moments ago, I was strapped into a harness and winched 150 feet into the air. Four massive steel girders support my weight, and I can see that I’m the highest object around for miles. I am about to become the fastest-moving man in science, and I can barely keep my breakfast down.

This contraption is called the Suspended Catch Air Device, but the folks at the Zero Gravity Thrill Amusement Park in Dallas prefer the more colloquial “Nothin’ But Net.” That’s because when the operator releases my rope, I will fall, untethered, until I plop into a modified circus net. The terrifying free fall will last less than three seconds, but to me it will feel much longer. And in this experiment, that is exactly the point.

The study of how the brain perceives the passage of time is no longer just the work of philosophers. In the past few decades, medical scanners and computers have improved such that scientists can monitor the brain’s activity millisecond by millisecond. Sorting out how the brain handles time-related information could reveal the cause of several mental illnesses. But some basic information still eludes researchers, in particular an explanation for “time dilation,” the notion that time seems to slow during life-threatening situations. My impending fall is the latest in a series of experiments designed by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, to crack this nut.

Attached to my wrist is a perceptual chronometer, basically two LED screens, each blinking random digits between 1 and 9. Before I was hoisted up here, the chronometer was set so that the numbers alternate just fast enough that I cannot read them. If Eagleman is correct, and the brain’s perception of time slows down during disaster, then I should see the numbers on the chronometer flicker in a readable slow-mo, sort of like how characters in The Matrix films see bullets. That is, if I can keep my eyes open.

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[Read the complete article at http://www.popsci.com/node/44236/?cmpid=enews041510%5D

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