Recent research at UCL provides corroboration for the claim that elite sports players often feel they have plenty of time to think about how they address a ball which is actually coming at them so fast that normal human beings probably shouldn’t even see it.

This effect, a perceived slowing down of time, is the kind of thing which I think would once have been shrugged off as unresearchable, outside the scope of proper science: how can we tell how things seem to people? These days we’re bolder, and the team in this case came up with an experiment in which some subjects were asked to tap a screen while others were merely asked to observe. Those who were asked to prepare action reported feeling the time they had available seemed longer.

The finding makes a certain obvious sense in that being granted extra mental time when a particularly crucial task is coming up is bound to be helpful. But it’s also a little puzzling: if the brain is capable of giving us more time, why doesn’t it do so routinely? It would never be a bad thing to have more time for reflection; if the facility only gets turned on in these special circumstances there must either be some downside or cost which makes the brain ration its use, or something else is wrong.

It’s not altogether implausible that revving up our mental processes might have an energy cost, or that our neurons might be able to speed up a bit only temporarily; but as always with consciousness there’s a deeper issue. Did mental processing actually speed up, or did it simply feel as if it did; or indeed, was the time merely remembered as passing more slowly? There’s an assumption here that when we are playing baseball or tennis control is fully conscious, but actually it’s far from clear that the deliberative  level of thought has much to do with it – it generally seems more a matter of gut reaction than strategic debate.

Another complicating factor is that we don’t actually perceive the passage of time directly, in the way we can observe spatial sizes. There is no speial organ devoted to measuring time, and it seems likely that if we do have to assess time (we’re pretty bad at it- try telling when two minutes have passed without looking at a clock) we pick up on several different indirect clues.

It may well be that one way the brain works out how much time has passed is by counting the number of ‘events’ it remembers and assuming that the gap between each of them is about the same. ‘Events’ would be mental ones, which explains why outwardly uneventful time may seem to pass very slowly – because we keep checking our watches or asking ourselves how much longer, so that there is a steady stream of mental acts, whereas when we’re caught up in something interesting there are none of these mental markers put down and time seems to fly.

It seems highly plausible to me that when we’re asked to prepare mentally for a given act (whether tapping the screen or hitting a perfect drive to the boundary) a sequence of this kind is set up, in which we keep asking ourselves ‘am I going to do it now?’ or ‘is it time yet?’. If that’s true the chances are the impression of having more time to react is actually an illusion, though it may reflect a genuinely improved state of readiness.

I couldn’t help reflecting that the conditions of these experiments rather resembled those in the famous series of experiments by Benjamin Libet which seemed to show that a decision to move one’s hand at a given moment had actually been taken significantly before that same decision entered consciousness. Libet’s subjects were asked to get ready to act in just the sort of way which might have led to the kind of time-dilation effect considered in the UCL research. Libet’s ingenious system for measuring the time of decision, with subjects reporting the position of a clock at the vital moment, should be fairly well proofed against subjective errors: but could it be that a sense of time slowing down caused Libet’s subjects to delay slightly in reporting their decision?

Just  a thought.



  1. 1. Callan S. says:

    I guess if you ran a test where some sort of statement or such came up to indicate, for example, which way to hit the ball. Ensure the statements keep changing in form and the manner they indicate which way to hit, so the right responce can’t be learned by reflex. Then see how much deliberation can influence events in this ‘quick time’.

    Then perhaps run another test, where certain directions might gain the participant some monetary sum, and the directions do follow a logic (but a fairly complex one, not able to be untangled all that quickly). Then bring up situations which seem similar but certain small clues to that logic are present and then measure the participants choices of direction. Try and evaluate if the speculation on which direction to go is just random guessing, or it does seem to involve some logical evaluation of what might be the right direction.

  2. 2. Arnold Trehub says:

    People who have been involved in stressful accidents often report that the event which happened in a matter of seconds or less seems to have been stretched out in time so that they experienced it in slow motion. This feeling of having extra time in which to experience a very rapid event, it seems to me, is similar to the slowing down of time reported by elite athletes. I would suggest that the explanation is to be found in a “widening” of the extended present as the result of a sharp increase in focused physiological arousal. One would expect this to happen in retinoid space because the autaptic-cell patterns which represent the critical event would be hyper-primed by the increase in arousal (ascending reticular activating excitation) and as result would decay more slowly, thus extending the phenomenal present to include more features of the experienced event.

  3. 3. Charles Wolverton says:

    FWIW, Peter, I think your reference to Libet is indeed relevant, although my speculative explanation of how the sense of extended arises is a bit different. Here’s my take on, say, an “elite” tennis player returning a fast serve.

    An elite player will be good at anticipating, based on subtle clues not available to lesser players, and will respond reflexively. There will be neither time nor necessity to make “conscious decisions”; the appropriate response is in so-called “muscle memory”. As in the Libet experiments, the action will have been initiated long before awareness of any associated phenomenal experience. The sense of extended time could be due to two things. The elite player will quickly get into the mode of a mere spectator, just as Libet’s subjects were already passive spectators by the time they noted the time (dot position) of their “conscious decision”. And the elite player has been trained to “watch the ball” (in the assumed scenario, futilely if my analysis is correct). A mere spectator with extremely focused attention on an unfolding event (the flight of the ball) presumably will have a more relaxed sense of the passage of time than will a lesser player who is under the stress of actually having to make at least some real-time adjustments, even in the case of a slower serve.

    If this is right, the player’s sense of having “plenty of time to think about how [to] address a [fast moving] ball” is just another example of the illusion of “conscious” decisions.

  4. 4. Lloyd Rice says:

    I think you are absolutely correct, Peter, that brain processing “speeds up” in that a greater percentage of the vast available inputs get used to compute useful perceptual results. And I also believe it must be true that the cost of such a speed-up must be appreciable. Given the immense fraction of the total energy intake that is used for (human) brain processing, we could simply not afford to run in speed-up mode more often than survival has settled on.

    Yeah, it would be great, if possible. I have experienced the crisis slow-motion effect that Arnold discusses. I would love to be able to do that more often, but I fear I would not want to eat enough red meat to make it possible.

  5. 5. Richard J R Miles says:

    As a human, if you take autonomic activity, i.e. heartbeat, breathing, circulation, digestion etc, as one side of the nervous system, and conscious deliberate somatic action on the other side of the nervous system, i.e. initial wooden learning to tie shoelaces, play tennis etc, then an elite tennis player with memory of repetitious training experience would have an ability more towards the side of autonomic activity, but it would still require conscious initiation of some kind for somatic action to occur, in conjuction with advanced time phenomenal prediction based on memory experience, usually enabling the racquet to meet the predicted path of the ball.

  6. 6. Vicente says:


    I don’t know, it seems to be that the brain energy consumption reaches a peak when idle, when the default network is day dreaming, and the opposite, it is much more efficient when focused on a task.

    a greater percentage of the vast available inputs get used to compute useful perceptual results

    Are those results verted into the conscious space? because we are talking about the subjective feeling of time passing.

    There some experiences that show that meditators expand their conscious perceptual space, being aware of events that remain subsconscious for ordinary people, eg: they are more robust against the “masking effect” in subliminal inputs. Eventually meditators report that time cease to exist in a way. Besides, day dreaming also causes some perturbation in time feeling.

    I pressume that time is in a way an illusion that vanishes as consciousness gets cleaner from inner and outer noise (lesser consumption).

    So, once we are just aware of change, and relative change (that’s time), then we perceive time in a different manner, which is what meditators and baseball players report.

  7. 7. Han says:

    Interesting stuff!

    My PhD thesis was on the neuroscience of timing. I don’t think event-driven timing is necessary for what you are talking about. Even animals can learn to time the interval since a light or a sound as been switched on — without any secondary cues. Further, studies on dopaminergic and cholinergic drugs suggest that the timed behavior of an animal can be sped up or slowed down, and that this may result from changes in the rate of change of neural firing in certain cortical and subcortical areas. You can always argue that this says nothing about the subjective experience of time, but for that you can always ask the user of a drug that affects one of these systems.

    This review paper covers some relevant literature:

    I’m curious: why are philosophers of mind reluctant to talk about pharmacologically-altered subjective states? The scientific perspective involves learning about things by tinkering with them. Shouldn’t this inspire people interested in consciousness too? 🙂

  8. 8. Peter says:

    Han – thanks.

    I have come across some philosophical discussion of pharmacologically-altered states, but I agree there isn’t as much as you’d expect. Some philosophers may feel they’ve got enough on their plates with old-fashioned dreams and illusions, but it is certainly the case that they tend to be a bit conservative about seeking out new evidence.

    I remember a tutorial with Myles Burnyeat when I was an undergraduate, where someone quoted the example of how everything looks yellow to people with jaundice.

    “Ah,” said Burnyeat, “You copied that from Berkeley, I expect: he got it from…[long and very erudite list of philosophers stretching back to Aristotle and beyond]. So you can feel proud that you have joined a very long philosophical tradition. But you should also feel ashamed because it’s nonsense. Things don’t look yellow to people with jaundice, but philosphers have been repeating the same example for two and a half thousand years and not one of them bothered to check; and neither have you…”

    One of Myles’ mildest put-downs.

  9. 9. Vicente says:

    Han, just for curiosity, wouldn’t the firing rate be equivalent to secondary cues, but at a subconscious level? Is there some kind of counter that integrates the spikes?

    Could you point out any “kind of time” which is not events related?

  10. 10. roger pitcher says:

    it seems to me that the ‘will’ acts from the future (outside). thus when one become conscious of ones actions (inside) must be after the will to act.

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