By Maria O’Connell

Have you ever wondered why interviews last so long? Or, maybe why the first time you met your fiancee’s parents, time seemed to drag on forever? How about the time that you thought your child was missing and two minutes seemed more like thirty?

A recent study conducted by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College, explored this phenomenon. He and his colleagues were seeking to explain why scary experiences seem to pass by in slow motion.

To test this question, the researchers had volunteer participants dive backwards out of a plane without any ropes or attachments. Sometimes reaching 70 mph free-falling through the air, they were caught by a very special net that was created to cushion their fall. The results: the volunteer divers estimated that their own fall lasted about a third longer than the dives that they saw other volunteers take.

The next question Eagleman and his colleagues had: can people actually see and perceive more when in dangerous situations? The answer: NO! Using an invented device called a “perceptual chronometer,” the researchers discovered that the brain does not in fact speed up when in danger.

So, why does one perceive that time is slowed in frightening situations? Speed of time is actually a trick of the memory. When one is scared, the amygdala, a part of the brain, becomes much more active. In this state, the amygdala lays down an extra set of memories in addition to those memories that are created by other parts of the brain. So scary memories are associated with denser memories, and the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took.

In this same pattern, the reason those summers seemed so much longer when you were a child is because you lay down rich memories for all of your experiences when you are young. But as you age, because you have already experienced certain events, you will lay down fewer memories to remember them. This is why time seems to speed up as you grow older.

So next time you leave an interview, you will know why time seemed to drag by. When you look back on your first time meeting the parents of your significant other, you will know that your memory double-recorded that experience. And when you find your child after he/she disappeared, you will know that time did not actually slow down.

I find it absolutely amazing just how intricately we are created. Don’t you?

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