Functional time dilation: Prolonging the critical present


One of the most fascinating aspects of time is that it can appear to dramatically slow down (‘dilate’) during traumatic events, such as an impending car collision.  Time dilation is predominantly explained as an illusion in which traumatic events are more densely encoded in memory and only seem longer in recollection. However, I have been studying time dilation as an adapted capacity which enhances our abilities to react in emergent circumstances.  This functional account agrees with individuals (e.g. athletes and aircraft pilots) who experience speeded mental processes and motor behaviors accompanying the time dilation of critical moments. 

Fortunately, time dilation can also be evoked in the laboratory using the ‘oddball’ paradigm – in a stream of objects encountered one by one for the same duration, an ‘oddball’ event that differs from the others will seem to have lasted longer.  In an initial study from this functional perspective, I predicted that time dilation could only enhance physical interactions with the environment if experienced globally – not constrained to particular attended objects as in previous research, but effecting the entire visual field.  This prediction was supported in several ways, showing that an oddball stimulus slows time even for other simultaneous events, regardless of their spatial separation, or their perceptual grouping.  I also observed that some oddballs are more effective than others, likely for adaptive reasons: for example, looming oddballs reliably caused time to slow, whereas visually similar receding oddballs did not (New & Scholl, Journal of Vision, 2009).  I am currently expanding my studies from this functional perspective – examining how time dilation augments the perceptual, cognitive, and motor systems necessary for adeptly responding to critical events.   


New, J. J. & Scholl, B. J. (2009). Subjective time dilation: Spatially local, object-based, or a global visual experience? Journal of Vision, 9, 1-11. (PDF).

Arresting perception: Animate objects capture attention and 'slow' time

My studies of animate objects led me to propose that their sudden appearance may not only capture attention, but also effect some degree of time dilation – serving to prolong and magnify even brief glimpses of animate objects in visual awareness.   I predicted that the duration of briefly displayed people and animals will more often than inanimate objects appear greater than their veridical duration. I tested this prediction using a variant of the ‘oddball’ paradigm in which one item from one natural category (people, animals, flowers, or vehicles) was presented in stream of urban and rural landscapes and ranged in duration from half to slightly longer than the duration used for the rest of the images. Participants simply identified which item in each stream of images was displayed for a ‘longer’ amount of time than the others. Animate objects were identified as the ‘longer’ images in the sequences far more frequently than chance – and significantly more frequently than the inanimate targets – even when presented for 50% of the standard duration. Brief glimpses of people and animals may thus be more persistently represented in visual awareness than other types of objects (New & Stiller, JOV, 2012).