Why A Brush With Death Triggers The Slow-Mo Effect Time seems to slow down when we fear for our lives. A neuroscientist believes he has figured out what's going on in our brains that makes us feel this way.
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Why A Brush With Death Triggers The Slow-Mo Effect

Listen To A Life Nearly Flashing By

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If you're doing something adventurous this summer - like, say, bungee jumping -it may make your heart race. And we have a story this morning about what happens in your head while your heart is racing. It comes to us from Radiolab.

(Soundbite of music)

JAD ABUMRAD: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Hi, Jad. That's Jad Abumrad from WNYC.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is me, Robert Krulwich. And Radiolab is well, it's a show where we get curious, we explore big ideas...

ABUMRAD: And sometimes, we get a little dangerous. In fact, like for this story, we fell off a house.

INSKEEP: Fell off a house? You didn't.

KRULWICH: Not really.


KRULWICH: But a guy we know did. His name is David Eagleman. He's a neuroscientist from Baylor College of Medicine. But back when he was a kid...

ABUMRAD: How old were you just to, sort of -

Mr. DAVID EAGLEMAN (Baylor College of Medicine): I was, I was 8 years old.

ABUMRAD: He had an experience which he says changed his life.


ABUMRAD: He was playing in his subdivision in Houston. And there was a house nearby...

Mr. EAGLEMAN: ...that was under construction, and my father told me not to go climbing around on the house under construction, but I was a boy, so I did. And I was looking at the edge of the roof, and I stepped on it. But in fact, it was tar paper hanging over the edge, and I - and I fell.

KRULWICH: Oh, so you stepped onto the air, in effect. You just went shwoooh.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EAGLEMAN: And what happened was the event seemed to take a very long time. I thought about whether I had time to grab for the edge of the roof, and I realized it was too late for that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EAGLEMAN: So then I was looking down at the ground as the red brick floor was coming towards me. And I was thinking about "Alice and Wonderland," how this must be what it was like for her when she fell down the rabbit hole.

KRULWICH: Hmmm. How long, by the way, was it from the top of the roof to the ground below?

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Point eight six seconds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Thats how long it takes to fall 12 feet; I calculated that later.

ABUMRAD: That would be one-one thousand - and this whole experience left David Eagleman with a question that he could not get out of his mind.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: What happens to people when theyre in a life-or- death situation, and they have these thoughts that seem to take a long time? So at some point, I realized I needed to study this.

ABUMRAD: How would you even study that?

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Well, the first thing I did, I took my entire laboratory to Astroworld.

(Soundbite of Astroworld theme music)

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Which is the amusement park here in Houston. And we went on all of the scariest rollercoasters, and we brought all of our equipment and our stopwatches and had a great time. But it turns out, nothing there was scary enough to actually induce this fear for your life that appears to be required for the slow-motion effect.

So I searched around, and I finally found something called SCAD diving.


Mr. EAGLEMAN: Stands for suspended catch air device.

ABUMRAD: Where do you do that?

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Turns out its illegal in Houston, but I found one in Dallas.

(Soundbite of laughing)

Mr. EAGLEMAN: So we made a road trip up to Dallas.

Unidentified Man #1 (SCAD Instructor): All right, jump number one.

ABUMRAD: And we actually found a reporter in Dallas who agreed to give this a try.

Unidentified Man #1: ...on, and then Ill put this on over the harness.

APRIL: No ones ever died on this thing, right?

Unidentified Man #1: Nope.

ABUMRAD: This is April.

APRIL: I feel like my hearts in my throat.

ABUMRAD: Shes very brave.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: You ride up to the top of this tower in this very rickety, little elevator-type of thing.

APRIL: Okay, were riding up in the elevator right now.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: A 150-foot-tall tower.

APRIL: Its not too fast.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Climbing up and up and up.

APRIL: It doesnt seem that far when youre down there. Up here, it seems really far.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Its like a 15-story building.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, were halfway.

APRIL: Oh, man. Okay, this is just halfway; Im already freaking out.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: And...

APRIL: My hands are starting to shake.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: ...at the very top, youre suspended.

APRIL: Like this?

Unidentified Man #1: Yup.

APRIL: Okay.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Youre hooked up to a carabineer.

APRIL: Oh, God. Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: Sit all the way back. Lean back.

KRULWICH: Okay, so I want you to imagine this: You're up in the sky. You are facing the clouds, not the ground. You are attached to something which is about to be severed. And you will fall totally free into the void, unable to see whats about to happen to you, presuming a net, maybe.

APRIL: Oh, God. Okay. Dont let me die.

ABUMRAD: Three, two...

APRIL: Really nervous right now.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: And...

APRIL: Aaaah!

ABUMRAD: Okay - wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. One thing I forgot to mention. April actually wasnt part of Davids study. But if she had been, she would have been wearing, around her wrist, this little device.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: A new device, called the perceptual chronometer.

ABUMRAD: Its about the size of a watch, and it flashes numbers super fast.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah, yeah.

ABUMRAD: Way too fast to see normally. But the thought is, if April falls and everything starts to slow down, well, then these numbers should slow, too. So that if she looks at her wrist as she is falling, she should be able...

Mr. EAGLEMAN: To now read the watch - that would be impossible under normal circumstances.

ABUMRAD: Back to April.

APRIL: Really nervous right now.

ABUMRAD: Three, two...

Mr. EAGLEMAN: And...

APRIL: Aaaaah! Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God, that was the scariest moment of my life. Oh, my God.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: I should probably tell you guys the results of the study but...

ABUMRAD: Yeah, yeah, yeah - so do people report that time slowed down enough for them to read the number?

APRIL: Im alive.



Mr. EAGLEMAN: Turns out when youre falling, you dont actually see in slow motion.


Mr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Its not equivalent to the way a slow motion camera would work. Even though people feel like its going in slow motion, its something more interesting than that.

(Soundbite of chime)

ABUMRAD: 'Cause heres the thing, right after people did the jump, he would ask them...

Mr. EAGLEMAN: How long they thought their fall took.

ABUMRAD: The right answer, if theyd had a stop watch...

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Just under three seconds.

ABUMRAD: But what people would say...

APRIL: How long, when you were falling, how long did it...

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

APRIL: Ten seconds.

Unidentified Woman: It felt, it felt like - time was stopped.

ABUMRAD: So how do you explain that? Like times not slowing in the moment - but seems to be slowing after the moment?

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Well, I came to understand that its a trick of memory. Normally, our memories are like sieves. Were not writing down most of whats passing through our system.

ABUMRAD: But he thinks that when you go...

APRIL: Aaaah!

ABUMRAD: You know, life-or-death moment.

APRIL: Oh, my God!

ABUMRAD: In that instant, our memories go wide open.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: Because thats what memory is for. Its for when everything hits the fan. You want to write it down and remember it.

ABUMRAD: So all of it goes right to your hard drive - the clouds, the feeling of the air. Oh look, theres a guy in a blue shirt.

Mr. EAGLEMAN: So when you read that back out, the experience feels like it must have taken a very long time.


Mr. EAGLEMAN: It must have.

KRULWICH: Normally, the trivial stuff gets dumped but in this situation, it gets written.

ABUMRAD: And then you realize how much trivial stuff is in there.

INSKEEP: Which makes you wonder, Robert and Jad, how we'd feel if we remembered all that stuff all the time?

KRULWICH: You'd be totally consumed by memories. You'd...

ABUMRAD: Buried.

KRULWICH: Yeah. You'd look at an egg, and you'd see all the veins in the egg and you'd see the white, and you would see the borders - and you'd think...

ABUMRAD: You wouldn't be able to forget it.

KRULWICH: Having an experience like this creates a surfeit of memory - too much to remember.

INSKEEP: Well, Robert and Jad, I don't know what to make of this, but if feels like this story took about three times longer than normal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Thanks very much for sharing that one with us.

ABUMRAD: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show Radiolab, a production of WNYC. And you can explore Radiolab at npr.org.

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