We see it so often in movies that it’s a cliché…something terribly stressful happens and our protagonist, either through otherworldly skill, powers or pants wetting fear witnesses everything slow down around them. In the case of skill and powers this allows them to dodge bullets/punch faces/eat sandwiches.
When it’s fear they mostly get to juuuust avoid whatever was coming towards them.
It’s an overused trope in written fiction too, but it’s somewhat based in reality. So what’s really going on when time seems to slow down.
Partly it’s your body freaking out and dumping a huge dose of adrenaline into your bloodstream. This quickens your reaction time, forces more blood through to your muscles and generally prepares you to either knuckle up or run away. For a long time it was thought that it also slowed the perception of time.
The anecdotes certainly supported this: people reporting everything from being able to see punches coming in slowmo, but not being able to avoid them, to seeing what seemed like barrel sized spent cartridges float by police officer’s faces during gun fights.
I never got that. Instead I came away from the more terrifying experiences of my life feeling like they’d gone by very, very quickly but that I could remember everything that had happened in great detail, so in my memory I could replay things at a far slower rate.
And science has vindicated me* (oh ego, what would I ever do without you?). Woo!
As it turns out time perception during a terrifying or otherwise adrenalizing event doesn’t change, but our brain takes the adrenaline dump as a signal that it had better remember what’s happening in great detail because it doesn’t want a repeat of whatever is going on.
There are exceptions of course, such as trauma-induced amnesia, but in most cases this memory encoding theory seems to hold true. We don’t perceive things as happening any slower while they’re actually happening, but we remember the event as if we could.
I think this is a useful trick to employ when you’re writing a fight scene, or in fact any scene where your main character’s heart rate doubles over the space of a few seconds. Describe the actual fight as being at blinding speed (most fights are over within thirty seconds) but have the character remembering the fight in such detail that it seems as if time has slowed down. I think this adds a great deal of urgency to the feeling of your fight scenes without forcing you to reuse a tired trope.
* What I mean by this is the articles I looked up online that were written by fancy science people vindicated me. It’s not like I conducted a study.
Peyton Quinn says
As a certified legal witness in the effects of the adrenal complex on human physiology I can testify that there are these main effects of adrenal eliciting situation:
1- Loss of fine motor control, hjis is why martial arts training so often fails in real world crisis. The person studied finer motr skills that are lost under the adrenal dump. Only experience with that crisis and/or adrenal stress conditioning in the training program can help with this effect.
2- AUDITORY EXCLUSION: Our hearing shuts off or is greatly diminished as the processing od the auditory input, in affect our hearing can “shut’ off. The paper I wrote in 1974 University of Texas, assigned this phenomena to the neural nets processing sound being switched over to more quickly process visual cues. Which is why we ‘see faster’ thus creating the Number 3 condition in later decades after my research thus came to called ‘Tachy Pshyci’ (slow motion visual perception).This why police can’t remember how many shots they fired, thjey did not hear them normally
3- SLOW MOTION VISUAL PERCEPTION: Things appear to slow down and even the remaining audio cues seem like a record being played at too low a speed. We are seeing faster, the visual cortex has more processing power usurped from the auditory nets.
4- FALSE MEMORIES: Under the adrenal dump the part of the brain that is engaged is the non slef aware Amygdala or “Frog Brain”. Since it is not a self aware part of the psychi there is a time interval “gap” or blank spot in the person’s memory. This elicits cognitive dissonance that must be resolved. Hence at times when a person returns to their self aware conscientiousness they fill in that gap with a ‘memory’ created by their previous training often times. But though the memory is quite real and true to their minds, it may have no real relationship to what they did or what actually occurred.
5- PTSD TRIGGERS CAN BE FORMED: All PTSD is result of this mental physiology which occurs under adrenal stress. But ancillary elements like a smell, sound though perhaps distorted or a visual cue that was present during the actual crisis, can engage that past traumatic and incomplete memory into a vividly. Even to the point of visual hallucinations. Smells are most often triggers to a PTSD episode because these are al;ways processed firrt by the Amygdala.
All these elements are connected as may be apparent. A PTSD condition often goes unperceived by the PTSD sufferer. Conventional “Talk Therapies” or “Cognitive Therapies are so often ineffective because they do not communicate with the adrenal mind where the root of the condition resides.
There era effective therapies as I have used them for decades now, but they must engage the all of the above Adrenal Effects so the channel to the non slef awre mind is opened for input. Then the self awre mind can process the problem.
Although mots of my books are in the self-help arena, I have written two decent novels engaging these concepts. PTSD exists on a very long continuum. WE think of Combat experience as being the main PTSD category and here the symptoms can make a person dysfunctional (without effective treatment). But it my belief that everyone has some level, very low as it might be, that influences their cognitive behaviors without their being aware of it.
Romantic relationships gone bad alwayds create some PTSD effects because they are high adrenal complex events and lead to extreme cognitive dissonance (abandonment, betrayal etc I.E a “Broken Heart’).
Force-able rape is another PTSD creator, but even a ‘domineering boss’ or verbally abusive boss at work can create some of these non self aware PTSD behaviors in us.
It would be challenging for ficvtion writer to do an enagaing expositon of this often ignored or misunderstood element of psychology and phjysiology, but in a Detective or Court Room Drama and perhaps other novel genres I think done well it could work.
Dina James says
Mr. Quinn, you seem to have missed (or deliberately ignored) our comment policy here at the ELEW.
While we very much appreciate your regular readership and your participation in the comments of various posts, your remarks to Andrew (who has a great deal more experience with his chosen topics than you give him credit for) are patronizing, condescending, and completely uncalled for. (I know, you don’t see it that way, but trust me. It’s all of those and more.) Consider this your sole notice: should you wish to continue to engage with the posts, you will refrain from condescension, mansplaining, free offers to better our behavior/writing/information, and other attention-seeking douchebaggery, or you will find your comments disemvoweled (not a typo – Google it). If you continue to make an ass of yourself, you will be banned from accessing the ELEW site entirely. We also do not respond well to threats, so if you are considering making any as a result of this notice, please refrain.
This is not up for negotiation; you are on our territory, these are our rules, and either play by them or we will show you out.
P.S. All rape is by definition “force-able.” Just FYI.
Peyton Quinn says
Th nly thng n yr crtq cn gr wth s tht ‘ll rp s frc-bl’. shrd my knwldg fr th bnft t h grp. t s bwldrng t m tht y s t s cndscndng. Bt yr s f lngg sch s “ttntn-skng dchbggry” shws s ll yr tr clrs.[Where are the vowels?]
Huh. This is only slightly less-legible than your original comment.
Peyton Quinn says
Y d nt sm t b vry hppy prsn Rly[Where are the vowels?]