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For Athletes, Time Really Does Slow Down

Neuroscientists now think that the perception of time might really slow down for athletes before the big moment

Image: Mike Baird

There’s a classic way of describing epic moments in sports: time crawls to a halt as you watch the ball float through the air, dancing slowly towards your hands, or bat, or whatever it is you’re doing. But, of course, that doesn’t really happen. It’s just a way to make movies cooler. Or, maybe, it does happen?

Neuroscientists at University College London recently showed that a person’s perception of time really does seem to slow down just before they perform some physical action. One of the researchers, Nobuhiro Hagura, told the BBC:

Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced. So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower.

Here’s how they figured it out: Volunteers were asked to react to discs on a screen that either flashed or flickered. Some of those volunteers were told to tap the screen when they saw the flashes, while some weren’t asked to move at all. Those who had to tap reported feeling like they had more time to make the motion than those who weren’t making arm movements. And, the more prepared the subjects were to tap the screen, the longer they felt like they had to do it. The researchers are now looking to figure out what the brain is doing during those slowed down moments.

The mystery of time is something we’ve all wondered about. At Radiolab, they tackle the moments where you feel time come to a crawl, whether it be before you hit a baseball, while you’re falling, or as you careen towards another car in the brief window before a collision.

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Olympians Could Beat the Competition by Tweaking Their Genes
The History of Keeping Time

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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