Stetson et al Article Summary

Posted by on July 9, 2011

Through this paper, the idea of time dilation during a stressful event will be discussed and evaluated in view of scientific research regarding the matter.  In the article “Does time really slow down during a frightening event?” Stetson et. al do research into this subject with the null hypothesis being the folk psychological view that time does slow down, and they believe through their research they have found evidence to falsify the null hypothesis and possibly lead to an alternative hypothesis.

The authors of the article mention that it is easy to manipulate temporal judgments such as duration, order, and simultaneity, because all of these are subject to various distortions.  So, the question that is intriguing to the authors is whether a change to one temporal judgment subjects other judgments to consequently change or not?  In pursuit of an answer to this question the authors conduct the research that is the focus of the article.  The authors perform an experiment to see if temporal resolution increases during a frightful situation, because if the null hypothesis is true, then due to an extended experience of time there should be a concomitant increase in temporal resolution; the flickers on a video tend to decrease as the video is played in slow motion, making the image on the screen clearer, and so similarly the results should be the same for a human who experiences time dilation.

The experiment is performed through a setup where the participants are required to have a chronometer attached to their wrists like a wrist watch, and while they free fall down 50 feet towards a safety net, they must stare at the chronometer to see if they can determine what the randomly flickering number on their wrist is.  If they are able to read the number correctly, then the evidence would suggest their temporal resolution increased as the experience of time dilated.  If not, then the authors believe the null hypothesis has been proven false.  Also, a part of the experiment was for the participants to use a stopwatch to measure their imagination of how long it would take them to start from top and drop towards the net, as well as report to the scientists how long they felt the fall lasted once they experienced it.

In their results, the authors found the estimation of time for the free fall increased by 36% after the participants had taken part in the experiment, but there was a lack of evidence of consequential increase in temporal resolution.  In order to test their experiment, they conducted a control experiment in which the participants stayed on the ground and viewed their chronometers to determine the random number.  Remarkably, there was not a real difference between the temporal resolution performance of those participants who stayed on the ground and those who experienced free fall.  This evidence leads the authors to believe that there is no direct correlation between time duration estimates and temporal resolution.

If temporal resolution were to increase as experience of time dilates it would mean time is unitary, but the evidence from the experiment contrarily suggests that time is not.  Also, the experiments support the hypothesis that “flicker rates and pitches of sound do not lower during subjective duration dilations” (Stetson et al 3).  According to the authors, one of the necessary points learned from this study is that the flicker rates are not limited by the retina, since it is scientifically known the retinal ganglion cells possess extremely high temporal resolution.   Considering these facts from the study, the authors are lead to believe that at this point there is no evidence supporting the hypothesis that subjective time is dilated or runs in slow motion during the experience of frightening events.  The authors believe such an experience might be due to an erroneous report that could possibly be linked to the amygdala in emotional memory.

The study by the authors provides highly reliable evidence that falsifies the null hypothesis.  Though, I believe further studies should be done on other fearful conditions, since not all frightening events are the same in their experience, and because they are not they may provide new ideas for learning.  Also, the authors’ claims regarding the possibility of memory altering our perception of time seems to hold some credibility, since it is common for us to present detailed accounts of our experience as though time were to slow down though it may have just been our memory soaking details like a sponge in a fearful situation.  Therefore, I believe further research in this area could be very helpful to our understanding of the mind and its function in temporal reception and memory.

The experiments conducted by the authors have sufficiently proven that temporal resolution does not increase during frightful events, and there may be other factors at work that may influence such an experience in which the individuals recollect deep detail of their experiences, such as the possible involvement of the amygdala.  Through this paper I have shown how the evidence collected from the experiment falsifies the folk psychological hypothesis regarding time dilation during frightening events.

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