Q: Is it possible to experience different rates of time? If time were to speed up, slow down, or stop, what would you experience?

Physicist: It depends a little on how you define “experience”, but in general you’ll always experience time moving in exactly the same way.  So sci-fi movies where the characters are experiencing slowed-down or sped-up time and are having a hard time moving around because time is all messed up are extremely inaccurate.  Outside of conversations that start with “I think it’s kicking in” you’ll never talk to anybody about how time is moving too fast or slow.

The mechanisms behind how our brains work, and by extension how we think, are governed by the same “kind of time” as everything else (known commonly as “time”).  So, if time “gets stretched out” by a factor of two, then the way our brain experiences it will also be stretched out by a factor of two.  Time would seem to be passing normally, even though everyone outside of the “time bubble” would see you differently.  In fact, there’s a few pretty decent sci-fi books about exactly that.

In a nutshell, time always passes at exactly one second per second.  Even if time were to suddenly stop and start again, there’s be no way to tell (except to check in with someone unaffected).

The twin paradox, where someone (doesn’t have to be a twin) moves around quickly for a while and finds that less time has passes for them than for their non-moving compatriots.

So what about when physicists, with their non-ironic beards, talk about time slowing down at high speeds according to special relativity?  Relativity is a theory about (not to surprisingly) relative movement and its effects.  The “twin paradox“, is a real-world example of time genuinely passing at different rates for different observers (although the mechanics of exactly who saw what and why takes a little hashing out).  However, without exception, in all of the examples from physics in which time passes at different rates, it’s always someone else’s time that’s affected.  Everyone (everything) involved always sees their own time passing normally.

There’s an unfortunate weakness of language when talkin’ physics.  When a physicist talks about “experiencing time”, what they mean is time as measured by a clock (or any kind of time measuring device).  When your average dude-on-the-street talks about experiencing time, there’s a good chance they’re talking about it in the “a watched pot never boils” kind of way.  Different people and creatures, what our different moods and biochemistry, perceive the passage of time differently, but “real time” is immutable.

The noble banana slug and the morally ambiguous basilisk lizard always experience the same amount of time physically, they just get a different amount done over that same time period.

So, if you see some critters moving quickly and others moving slowly, they’re all experiencing the same amount of time, they’re just using it differently.  By the way, even the fastest creatures aren’t generating any relativistic effects (not even close), different time rates are all in their head.  What’s deeply weird is that different creatures and even different people can genuinely think at extremely different rates!  For example, in this link (←) Oliver Sacks describes a dude who sometimes perceives the passage of only one or two seconds during a two hour period.

The picture of the noble banana slug is from here, and the basilisk lizard is from here.

This entry was posted in -- By the Physicist, Philosophical, Physics, Relativity. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Q: Is it possible to experience different rates of time? If time were to speed up, slow down, or stop, what would you experience?

  1. Neal W. says:

    Hmmm… people in combat situations have often reported the experience of slowed down time.

    “In 1986, two researchers were among the first to publish data specific to officer-involved shootings.7 In their study of 86 officers involved in shootings, they found that 67 percent of the officers saw the incident in slow motion, while 15 percent observed it as faster than normal.”

    SOURCE: http://www.alexisartwohl.com/publications/fbibulletin.html#previousresearch

  2. vertical says:

    You can experience the feeling of it, but it doesn’t actually happen:


  3. Shane Schofield says:

    Neal, this “slowing of time” you refer to is due to them using instinctive (“unconcious”) actions they have drilled a million times over. Time isn’t any faster, their brains are just taking shortcuts to escape the scenario quicker.
    From a martial artist’s point of view, I often experience similar affects in fights, I can see a punch or kick and respond rapidly because I’ve drilled it and my brain just does what it knows it has done before.
    Adrenaline – “Fight or Flight” – probably plays a key role, also.

    I once asked these fellas if relative time change is why “a watched clock never boils”, now I know that it doesn’t and why. Thanks for that Physicist.

  4. Shane Schofield says:

    “A watched kettle” not clock. Clocks don’t boil.

  5. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    If there’s a better way to soften clocks, I don’t want to know.

  6. Jessica says:

    If living with a physicist, watching sci-fi-movies/tv-series is never the same.

  7. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    We feed on joy. It’s what gives us unnatural long life.

  8. Jessica says:

    I’m into sci-fi stuff. He, not so much. We have two dvd’s now and peace returned to the land ;). I appreciate his view and our discussions but maybe not a discussion on the properties of air in the middle of a movie.

  9. menthewarp says:

    So we know that the faster something is going relative to another, the slower time passes for it physically (at relativistic speeds) compared to the slower object.

    In theory, can you go so slow compared to another object (say, earth) that you could create relativistic differences large enough so that physical time for the slowed object would appear to be ‘compressed’ from the perspective of an observer at nominal speeds?

  10. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    If you’re not moving at all with respect to something else you’ll be experiencing time at the same rate.

  11. Adrian says:

    There’s something that was confusing me since I’ve read that there’s no universal frame of reference: as the twin remaining on earth is moving at very high speed in relation to his space-travelling brother, shouldn’t less time pass for him as well?

  12. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    Each will see the other experiencing less time, but there are some subtleties at play. There’s a post here that talks about how two observers can see each other experiencing less time (and both be right), and there’s a post here about how the twin paradox works.

  13. The Wonderer says:

    If we go really fast to a really far away place time would slow down for you relative to someone going really slow but you wont experience time differently. When you start to experience time ‘slowing down’ it is completely psychological.

  14. ad4urlove says:

    1) on earth time means (technically) revolution of earth around sun….like when we say one hour it means we are giving reference of something with relative to the motion of earth around sun in one hour……and same for 1 sec and 1 minute…..now if we have to speed up time we have to do something so that the speed of earth arround sun increases and for slowing down of time we have to decrease the speed of earth ……but does that mean that we will be able to see things faster or slower……no ……and what about in outer space ….what is the meaning of time there….. and if some how we speed up the time will things start happening quicly…..arround 5-7 mins have passed since i m writing this thing but if we speed up the time does that mean i will be writing fast or what about jumping in future or past….. one thing i m sure that we can make time machine ……one day we will in some form….

  15. DERRICK WILSON says:

    stupid, you cannot feel time so you can’t speed it up or slow it down. time is relavant to the span of a human only on earth. if you live in space you have no night or day just light of the earth, sun, and pin points of stars. human time is just a clock.. wind the dials … feel any different?? of course not.
    so get time travel out of you head and teleportion on humans will never work because of the electricy in the human brain gets fried and your left with a NOTHING HUMAN. THEORY if you could teleport a human, then time travel could be plausable but the universe dosen’t work like a dvd player on constant record of mans life…
    NOW , What is here NOW is a SPECIAL DRONE that will hover above ALL cities and RECORD all movement within ALL cities 24 hrs a day , 365 days a year and designed with REWIND on ANYBODY..IMAGINE the memory banks to store all this… oh yes it HD and 3D…REMINDS ME OF A SONG YOU HUMANS LIKE TO SING” NOWHERE TO RUN..NOWHERE TO HIDE”"
    too bad you don’t know what i am talking about..

  16. Phyllis McLemore says:

    Physicists say there is no such thing as time yet people constantly talk about it as if it is real.
    In this reality that is very dense in vibration time seems to pass because the earth turns. That is all it is.
    Magnetic moment is what electrons have. That means that they do spin faster than the speed of light and all in the moment. There is no yesterday of tomorrow except in the imagination. And it turns out that physics says that imagination is what causes the vibration to start to begin with. The vibration is already there.
    I read in one book called “Hidden Messages in Water” by a Japanese author. In this book someone measured people. People vibrate 570 trillion times a second. What does that mean for speed? Are we going anywhere or are we in the moment?
    Read Hands of Light by the physicist Barbara Brennan. She says consciousness vibrates faster than the speed of light. You will love her pictures of light beings that she has worked with. These light beings “live” in another reality that vibrates so fast we do not see them usually unless we learn how to vibrate just as fast. Which is possible. I read this in the Seth books and in the book called “An Ascension Handbook”.
    What is more we are literally these energy beings that vibrate constantly in the magnetic moment because we are full of quanta. Quanta are not seen, but their behavior says they flow like fish in the ocean…..together. They unify. If people acted like these quanta we would have a peaceful world. Isn’t that the message religion has for us? Religion has a memory of the quanta!!!!!!

  17. Xerenarcy says:

    done a lot of personal studying of the subject. we are talking about two completely unrelated measures of spans of time here – clock time and human experience.

    clock time is only affected by relativistic effects; the mechanics of the clock itself play a part but for something like an atomic clock, relativity is it. if you ask the same question in terms of “can you ever see a clock next to you tick slower or faster due to the altered passage of physical time”, then no, you cannot.

    the other sort is entirely in our heads, and it is a retrospective analysis of time passing rather than any direct observation of time. this is because we are accustomed to dealing with only so much information in a given time interval – our perception of duration is proportional to the ‘amount’ of information we recognized / observed.

    someone experiencing a lot of information would claim time has slowed down for them, but only because they ‘got so much thinking done’. similarly an absence of information or experiences would appear that time has gone by quickly.

    without going into fringe psychology or new age or spiritual theories, it appears to be that if you train yourself to focus on a limited set of what you can perceive, you may find (at least i do) that you have observed more ‘information’ about the target of your focus in a set time, which for all intents and purposes would be recalled as a span of time where time felt like it had slowed down.

    by no means a proper study… i have recorded myself playing intense computer games requiring fraction-of-a-second reflexes, and have found that time does appear to slow down during but only because of a mental trick / prior training to focus on a subset of available data, which after-the-fact appears to be a faster-than-normal perception of time. i suspect the same principle will apply to martial arts and in general any ‘intense’ situations (falling from heights has been studied and confirmed the effect, as far as i can recall).

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