Irrational Animals: a neuroscience take on the news

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Life is short... but only if you're boring

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Skydiving. Photograph: Getty Images

Three years ago I went skydiving. It’s hard to remember how I convinced myself to do this, but it probably had parallels with how I get up in the mornings, exercise, or start going out with people: blurrily pretending it’s not happening until far too late.

But from the moment major fear kicked in, as I sat on the rattling edge between the inside of a plane and my dangling, sky-surrounded legs, my recall is near perfect.

The plane was dark pink. I was strapped to an instructor, who had the parachute, but there was also a pale green handle attached to my left side, just under my hand.

“Is this the cord that releases the parachute?”

“No, that’s the handle that separates you from me.”

I let go of the handle, the straps and my own sleeves, and spent the fall in the uncomplicated pose of Coyote from Looney Tunes, after he’s already hit the ground. It was extremely cold, I couldn’t really see, and the G-forces toyed with me like lint in a Dyson.

After exactly 20 minutes of this, the parachute opened.  “Wow, that was amazing,” I said, “really, really amazing.”

“Stop panicking – we’re nearly done.”

We were. The whole thing was over in four minutes  - the free-fall bit had been a matter of seconds. But my memory of it plays out as a full 20-minute narrative.

Physicists tell us that time can speed up, warp and shoot off in odd directions, but we never seem to feel these changes. Our inner clock usually records time passing in a manner that is fairly well synced to our wristwatches. In certain situations, though, especially those inspired by fear, our minds seem to be able to stretch time out like a wet jumper.

An experiment conducted by David Eagleman at the Baylor College of Medicine aimed to work out whether this odd illusion was experienced in the moment of fear itself, or after.  Do we, like characters in the Matrix, see time passing at a slower rate as we experience it (low pitched bullets droning past, water droplets suspended like jellies) or do we make it all up afterwards?

He persuaded a number of brave participants to SCAD-jump – drop 150 unsupported feet into a net. This was terrifying enough to bring out the slow-motion effect: afterwards, on average, the subjects overestimated the length of their fall by 36 per cent.

He gave everyone a chronometer, a watch that flashes numbers a little too fast to see. If the fallers experienced time-slowing, he reckoned they just might be able to see the numbers on their way down.

This turned out not to be the case, and he concluded that the time mistake happened in the memory. The slowed effect, he suggested, had been a function of hyper fast brain activity. The amygdala (seat of emotion and memory) had been jolted into recording every last detail of the experience. Rolled out afterwards, the bulked-up memory seemed to stretch far longer than would be accurate.

Live fast, live long

Time for us, then, depends a little on sensation. The days may indeed go faster as we get older and more emotionally stable, but expand again when we do something exciting.

So perhaps my conclusion should be “live fast: live long” – cramming our days with adrenaline highs might be the best way to slow the vertiginous pace of time. Interesting, but also, in some ways, very much whatevs. I’m not skydiving again.