You may have heard someone recount a harrowing story where the events seemed to unfold around them in syrupy slow motion. You may have had such an experience yourself. I have.
Such moments of altered perception are known as Time Expansion Experiences (TEEs). I have always thought that they were just the way we remembered things happening afterwards and that in the moment everything was actually happening at ‘normal’ speed.
But, not so fast…. let’s dig a little deeper.
Time Expansion Experiences.
TEEs often seem to occur in moments of personal crisis or existential threat such as trauma, near death events or emergencies. Yet they have also been reported in many other situations such as athletes being ‘in the zone’ or people finding themselves in sudden unfamiliar, unexpected environments, or during psychedelic experiences or deep meditation.
The question then, is do TEEs really occur at the time? Or are they just a subjective recollection as the person reflects back afterwards and process the events.
A sort of ‘optical illusion’ of time memory.
In an interesting set of studies of 60 participants, Steve Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in the UK, collected written accounts from people who had experienced TEEs in a variety of settings including accidents/emergencies, traumatic life events sports events, psychedelic ingestion and spiritual states/practices.
A number of themes emerged from the reports.
The people experiencing TEEs often noticed positive affective states (including feelings of detachment and lack of anxiety about any danger) combined with heightened alertness. Many reported a dramatic feeling of time expansion giving them opportunity to perform focused and detailed thinking, and make appropriate decisions or reactions.
Theories of TEE.
Investigators have suggested that TEEs are a result of increased levels of norepinephrine during a ‘fight or flight’ response. Taylor notes that this would not correlate well with the reported feelings of calmness and positive affect or in cases where the person was not in a situation that would elicit a fight or flight response.
Others feel the effect is due to the flooding of the brain with information and impressions during the incident. They do not occur in the actual moment but only as the brain attempts to re-process this dense block of information when recalling. That is, TEEs are a product of recollection not perception.
Another explanation is that TEEs are an adaptive trait allowing our ancestors to take survival interventions in dangerous situations. A part of the flight/fight/freeze response.
Finally, Taylor suggests an alternative explanation. Could it be that TEEs are a glimpse of the edge of a more mystical or transcendent experience in which we awaken from our usual state of experiencing linear time. Perhaps it is this ‘normal’ experience of time that is actually the optical illusion.
There are plenty of quantum physicists who would agree that our perception of time as an arrow running from the past through this present moment and out to an unknown future is not what actually happens. Rather our sense of time is a mental fabrication to bring order and sense to our individuated experience of reality.
A more radical interpretation of the findings of the studies described above, however, is to suggest that our normal experience of fast-flowing linear time is merely a psychological construct, and even illusory in nature […] If the experience of fast-flowing linear time is partly an effect of a sense of duality, it may be that as the sense of duality becomes weaker—that is, as the self-system becomes more labile and less separate—time seems to slow down. This is what happens in TEEs, including accidents and emergencies (which can suddenly jolt us out of our normal self-system). At a certain point, duality may disappear altogether, when the self-system becomes so labile that there is no distinction between the self and the world, as in mystical experi-ences, NDEs, and some psychedelic experiences. At this point, any sense of linear time may disappear altogether. This suggests that time simply a con-struct of the boundaries of the normal self-system, which fades away as duality fades away and disappears as duality disappears. — Steve Taylor
Reference: Taylor, Steve. (2020). When Seconds Turn Into Minutes: Time Expansion Experiences in Altered States of Consciousness. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 002216782091748. 10.1177/0022167820917484.
Featured image by Alex Lion