Neuroscientist David Eagleman hatched an experiment to learn about why our sense of time slows to a crawl in near-death situations (such as a free fall from a significant height). Disappointingly, it’s not because our abilities of perception kick into Matrix-style hyperdrive. NPR reports:
“Turns out, when you’re falling you don’t actually see in slow motion. It’s not equivalent to the way a slow-motion camera would work,” David says. “It’s something more interesting than that.”
According to David, it’s all about memory, not turbo perception. “Normally, our memories are like sieves,” he says. “We’re not writing down most of what’s passing through our system.” Think about walking down a crowded street: You see a lot of faces, street signs, all kinds of stimuli. Most of this, though, never becomes a part of your memory. But if a car suddenly swerves and heads straight for you, your memory shifts gears. Now it’s writing down everything — every cloud, every piece of dirt, every little fleeting thought, anything that might be useful.
Because of this, David believes, you accumulate a tremendous amount of memory in an unusually short amount of time. The slow-motion effect may be your brain’s way of making sense of all this extra information. “When you read that back out,” David says, “the experience feels like it must have taken a very long time.” But really, in a crisis situation, you’re getting a peek into all the pictures and smells and thoughts that usually just pass through your brain and float away, forgotten forever.