Why Does Time Seem to Move So Slowly When We're in Danger?

It may only feel like time has slowed down because the moments are packed with many more memories. Lightspring/Shutterstock

Does it seem like time has slowed to a crawl since you've been holed up in your apartment, riding out this pandemic?

How long has it been, anyway? Months? Years? Forever?

Well, time marches on all right — to the same beat it's always kept. But these days, your brain may be processing time a little differently.

In fact, according to David Eagleman, one of the world's foremost neuroscientists, your brain tends to slow things down when you're under extreme stress.

In a PBS episode of "The Brain with David Eagleman" (see trailer below), Eagleman weighs in on why a man in a failed flying suit felt like the six seconds between failure and hitting the ground felt like "minutes of time."

In frightening situations — like falling to the ground or battening the hatches against a mystery virus that has no known cure — our brains record experiences in more minute detail than usual.

When you play those experiences back, they're so rich and detailed, the experience feels like it lasted much longer than it did.

When your brain goes into overdrive

On Eagleman's website, he suggests imminent danger is the key to triggering a brain's hyper-sensitivity. For an earlier experiment, Eagleman and his team measured people's perception of time — essentially by gauging how much information the brain takes in at a given moment.

For that study, Eagleman equipped participants with palm-top computers and had them perform psychological experiments — while they were in a 150-foot free fall.

"By measuring their speed of information intake, we have concluded that participants do not obtain increased temporal resolution during the fall," Eagleman notes on his website. "Instead, because memories are laid down more richly during a frightening situation, the event seems to have taken longer in retrospect."

In other words, if you ever happen to find yourself falling from the sky, it may seem like forever before you hit the ground, mainly because your brain is taking more pictures and recording more memories than usual. Apparently, when faced what looks like an abrupt end, your brain suddenly gets very excited about life.

So what's so exciting about being cloistered at home?

The threat poised by COVID-19 may not be as imminent as falling off a cliff. But it's still there, and the intensity is ratcheted up with every news report — more cases confirmed, more lockdowns and ever-increasing projections. And social media adds plenty of doubt to that fear, depending on who your "friends" are.

That may trigger our brains to record these moments at a much higher frame-rate — perhaps 60 frames per second, rather than the usual 20 — making every moment of this quarantine feel like forever indeed.