Marketplace has a new podcast for kids, "Million Bazillion!" EPISODE OUT NOW

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

Kai Ryssdal Oct 3, 2014
HTML EMBED:
COPY

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

Kai Ryssdal Oct 3, 2014
HTML EMBED:
COPY

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.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.