Writing Excuses 9.6: The Experience of Time

Mette Ivie Harrison joins us again for a fun discussion of how we experience time. This episode runs a little differently. Howard shares an experience he had driving on black ice, Mette shares an experience about a bike accident during an Ironman, and Mary shares a story about falling down a flight of stairs.

Each of these stories point up the way that our perception of time can change. There are physiological reasons for this, and knowing just a little bit about that physiology can help us write this actual, real phenomenon in a way that does not seem cliché. We talk about how we can write time compression or dilation phenomenon in ways that seem fresh.


Take something you’ve already written where you relied on cliché (bonus points if it’s time-related) and rewrite it using different tools.

Déjà Dead, by Kathy Reichs, narrated by Barbara Rosenblat.

10 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.6: The Experience of Time”

  1. Hi folks,

    Long time listener here. As a grad student who does neuroscience research (though not on time perception), I thought you may be interested in some of the latest research on the subject of human perception of time, and how it varies with stress/adrenalin/exigent circumstances. If you’re a writer interested in being completely accurate to how we currently think of these processes, read on.

    It turns out that while it may ‘appear’ to be the case that we can think faster/process faster during moments of extreme stress, there is no actual increase in perceptual ability that occurs. ‘Time slowing down’ seems to be simply a confabulation that we tell ourselves, as a result (perhaps) of increased memory formation.

    There’s a rich literature here, summarized ably in this review article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2866156/ (should be accessible via PubMed Public Access).

    The major paragraph to note is here:

    “Finally, to understand the meaning of the common anecdotal report that ‘time seems to have slowed down’ during a life-threatening situation, Stetson et al. ran an experiment to determine if the claim meaningfully captured actual subjective experience. They hypothesized that if time can slow down as a single unified entity (the way it does in movies), then the slow motion should entail consequences, such as the ability for higher temporal resolution (for example, watching a video of a hummingbird in slow motion allows finer temporal discrimination because more snapshots are taken of the rapidly beating wings). The experimenters measured time perception of participants who fell backward from a 50-m tower into a net below. Participants retrospectively reported an increased perception of duration for their fall (as compared to others’ falls) — however, crucially, they showed no evidence for increased temporal resolution when measured during the 3 s fall. This result suggests a close intertwining of time and memory: during a frightening event, the amygdala is thought to contribute to denser-than-normal memory formation. In this way, frightening events become associated with dense memories, and the more memory one has of an event, the longer it is interpreted to have been.”

    The original research article where Eagleman and colleagues did this test is also open access, and you can read it here (it’s pretty jargon-free): http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001295

  2. Regarding the slowdown of time, I believe there was a Science Friday episode on that in the last year or so (can’t image where else I would have heard the discussion). If I recall correct, recent research had indicated it was an artifact of memory, not perception. Participants in the moment did not perceive time moving any slower than usual, but their memories of the moment were much more detailed than usual, suggesting the slowdown effect is something we apply after the fact.

    Either way, it’s still way to cool to pass up on when written well.

  3. It couldn’t have been more than one second. Really, how long could it possibly take for a person to fall two feet? I couldn’t have fallen much farther than that. One second, two feet, and then I was flying.
    “I’m losing my balance,” my brain had announced. It was an extremely unwelcome thought, but not a surprising one.
    We had, after all, just been riding the merry-go-round until we couldn’t walk a straight line to save our lives. And since my cousins and I were not convinced the contraption had reached its full potential with us aboard, we had decided to stand around it and spin it as fast as possible… just to see what it could do. As it turns out, six teenage girls can get a merry-go-round spinning quite fast.
    It was then, at the height of our pointless achievement, that everything went horribly wrong. Like most teenage playground antics, it hadn’t been thought through very well. None of us had considered the possible consequences of standing right next to what was essentially a giant egg beater while dizzy. However, I thought it through quite thoroughly after my equilibrium gave out.
    “I’m losing my balance. I’m falling forward, and there’s nothing I can do about it. That means I’m going to be hit by the next bar that comes around, and it’s really going to hurt.” Here, my brain seemed to pause for dramatic effect. “Well, crap.”
    One second of contemplation, another second of propulsion, and several more of skidding to a stop in the gravel. Groaning, I levered myself into a sitting position as my cousins hurried over to assess the damage.
    “Are you okay?” one of them asked.
    “You’ve got a rock in your elbow,” another added helpfully.
    Still somewhat dazed, I twisted my right arm around to look.
    “No, the other one.”
    Frowning, I removed the offending bit of gravel and checked for further injuries. Except for a few scrapes and bruises, I was fine. No broken bones, no dislocated joints, no gaping head wounds… Somehow, it seemed, I had defied both time and the laws of probability.
    I’d had quite enough of the merry-go-round though. Haven’t been near one since. (True story.)

  4. Howard, I know exactly what you mean about the drive to work. I too have worried when I realize I don’t remember the last 15 minutes of driving. Especially odd when at times I listen to book tapes and remember what happened in the story but not that I was driving during it.

  5. I have seen an account (though I cannot seem to locate the report now) of a man strapping a count down timer to his wrist that was moving too fast for the human eye to see, then bungy jumping. Halfway down, he looked at the timer and could see the numbers ticking down perfectly clearly.

    I’ve also had this same thing happen on a small scale while fighting, where I can clearly remember thinking about what was about to happen in full sentences that I could not speak fast enough to get in during the time that actually elapsed.

  6. Interesting episode. The slowing down of time for fights or accidents etc, is a very useful device – it’s basically literary bullet time. I think it should be used sparingly, otherwise you risk becoming like Zach Snyder’s 300, which overuses it and loses the power of the effect.

    My WIP was partly inspired by my experience of general anaesthetic, 3 years ago. When I came round, I was fascinated by the fact that I had no memory or concept of the time that had passed. It felt like only a second had passed, since I was going under. It was like a film that had been edited and the hour in the operation was on the cutting room floor, never to be found again. A really strange feeling.

  7. I’ve only just discovered this terrific podcast, through Brandon’s website, I think. Excellent, inspirational, not to mention useful. I particularly enjoyed the Steven Brust quotation about “long stretches of minutes, followed by short bursts of hours.” I remember a car crash when I was a teenager, and it was pretty much as was described here, everything in slow motion. Afterwards I recalled being thrown across the steering wheel in slow motion, my sunglasses spinning off my face like I was in Zero-G, and windscreen glass particles doing a slo-mo dance through the air. The point that it takes longer to show a scene like that than tell it was very interesting, too, I felt.

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