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

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

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.

Skydiving. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”