Why did Time Stop?!

can I rule the world now?

Maybe. But first, some housekeeping. Before discussing what happened, let’s talk about some of the theories used to explain away the effect. If you haven’t done the experiment yet, please try it here first. The rest of this will make much more sense.

The first natural assumption (besides suspicion that it may be a screamer) is that it’s an optical illusion. Through blind-spots, foveal vision and other anomalies of sight, somehow we may have missed the fact that the second hand was actually still moving. This is easily discounted when you do the experiment successfully —the second hand doesn’t jump ahead, as if blocked from vision temporarily, it starts precisely where it stopped.

The next pseudo-explanation that’s locked onto, from those that have read Mind Hacks (excellent book, btw), is an explanation in Mind Hack #18 about saccades and suppression of vision. When we move our eyes quickly over a relatively large span we retain a type of visual constancy that may explain split-second freezes (which will sometimes occur while you are reading the instructions and notice, as your eyes flip over to the clock, that it is stopped.) This does not explain how, without moving the eyes, and in fact fixing them on a specific location, you can stop time for much longer than a subjective second or two. Science has no viable explanation of our experience in terms of physiology, sorry about that. (Although the dilation does occur more readily with higher levels of theta brainwaves.)

But actually, something far more interesting may be at play.

Milton Erickson, the father of American medical hypnosis, performed a series of fascinating experiments in 1948-1954 documented in the book Time Distortion and Hypnosis. He used a metronome with subjects imagining themselves doing various tasks under hypnosis, at a normal pace, like counting beans or picking cotton (hey, this was the 40s and 50s :-)) One subject counted 862 cotton bolls, taking her time, brushing the leaves aside to insure she hadn’t missed any, in a period of 3 seconds in external clock time. Others had similarly remarkable experiences.

Erickson also worked with author Aldous Huxley who could enter into a light trance and develop writing themes; Huxley could subjectively experience 6-7 hours in the period of a few minutes, an ability he explored and further refined with Erickson.

Ultimately the clock doesn’t “measure” time in any objective sense in the way a thermometer measures temperature, rather it creates something we can synchronize experience to. This synchronization is a learned, cultural and social conditioning that is largely unconscious.

Edward T. Hall, a cultural anthropologist, describes an experiment in Dance of Life where one of his students surreptitiously filmed activities at a playground. When they broke the film down later, running it at different speeds, they found that one little girl who was skipping and cavorting across the playground was synchronizing the subtle movements of each group she came in peripheral contact with, both with her and with each other. A student, recognizing something familiar about the beat, found a particular rock song which fit the soundtrack of her rhythm precisely. Hall theorized, in discussing this with musicians, that music actually may form a type of consensual rhythm for a culture, one of many mechanisms that instruct and reflect how we experience time. But how can we re-program this conditioning if it is largely unconscious?

When we see indicators of our stress levels on something like a GSR meter (which measures skin conductivity) during biofeedback we discover that, with such a device providing feedback, we can rapidly learn to control our own physiology. By seeing internal changes reflected in the external readings we can directly affect our physiological arousal and relaxation. The mind sees the effect of its adjustments to sensations that are more minute than we are typically aware. In our experiment, the clock provided the feedback device, even the smallest dilation of awareness in time is immediately evident.

Now some of us are disappointed that we can’t stop “objective” time like a superhero and run around while everyone else is frozen in place. But “merely” altering your own relation to time still has several intriguing possibilities. A report in Erickson’s book talks of a subject who was able to bring about a slowing of observed physical phenomena at will, and to have employed this ability to advantage while boxing. Martial artists sometimes experience this, in exceptional circumstances, with time slowing down so they have plenty of opportunity to react to an opponent’s moves. Time dilation has applications in sports, video games, sensations you would like to prolong, or just having an extra 5 minutes to think of a snappy come-back in a split-second of clock time. Perhaps, with a little practice and calibration, these possibilities are closer than we think.

I’m going to utter perhaps the greatest piece of knowledge anyone can voice. Let me see what you can do with it.
Do you know that at this very moment you are surrounded by eternity? And do you know that you can use that eternity, if you so desire?

– Don Juan, Tales of Power

Related reading

About Time
Stalking the Wild Pendulum
The Doors of Perception
Trances People Live By
Beyond Culture