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How do you perceive time? Jump off a building and see

Kai Ryssdal Oct 3, 2014
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David Eagleman is a scientist who asks people to jump off of buildings. 

No, he’s not an evil villain (as far as we know). He’s a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine who studies time. 

As a boy, Eagleman fell off his roof, and had that classic film-reel experience of time slowing down, even though the fall took less than a second. Ever since, he has been interested in how the brain perceives time. 

In the experiment, Eagleman built what he calls a “perceptual chronometer,” essentially giant flashing numbers that subject saw as they fell 150 feet toward a giant net. 

“I can measure the speed at which you’re seeing the world, so I could figure out if people were actually seeing in slow motion, like Neo in The Matrix, or whether it was just a trick of memory, retrospectively.” 

As it turns out, it was a trick of memory. People falling, or in the midst of a car crash, lay down memory more densely than in the average moment, Eagleman concluded.

“So when you read that back out you think, ‘wow, that must have taken a really long time.'” 

It’s not only freak accidents that pass in milliseconds. Super-speedy automated systems have become staples of our economy, from high frequency trading to commercial airplanes to the profuse streaming video libraries online.

“It’s happening at a scale we can’t perceive,” Eagleman said, pondering an ever-more sci-fi future. “Maybe someday we’ll fight our wars that way. We’ll have drones fighting. World War III will be over in a tenth of a second… and we’ll see who won.”

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.

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