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.

18 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:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=D4146F12-E7F2-99DF-38CD1FEB89C4057C

  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:

    Nope!
    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).

  18. Mike Plouffe says:

    The short answer to your question “Is it possible to experience different rates of time?”, is yes, it is. As for what you would experience with different rates of time, a lot of studies have been done on just this topic. I’ll delve into

    An entire book could be devoted to your question, and the subject is fascinating to me, so I’ll try to keep my thoughts to a relative minimum! A few things. First, time is relative, and subjective, and can be/is perceived differently by different living creatures. As noted in other posts above, in all probability the general, over-all perception of the passage of time by a living creature is entirely relative to all sorts of things in it’s environment, it’s life cycles, and life span.

    On a freezing cold planet where life would have very slow metabolisms, they might live for a 100 thousand years and move so slowly that to us, they might not even seem like they’re alive at first glance! And even here on our own Earth, dogs grow faster, reach sexual maturity faster, reproduce, and live out their lives on a scale about 5 times faster than we humans. A lifetime to them almost certainly feels like a lifetime to us, just everything occurs faster with them compared to us, but wouldn’t feel short to the dog. A human getting ill and knowing they’re going to die at 15, like a dog, would feel very short to that person because on a human scale, how we perceive time, it would be very short. In humans, our experience of time is governed by several parts of the brain which can be damaged or not work properly, but time marches on whether we’re aware of it or not, and we’re only able to comprehend time on our own scale, making the life of a star or the age of the universe nearly incomprehensible, but if a star was “alive”, it’s life certainly wouldn’t feel as tortuously long as it would be to us. You get the idea.

    I share the opinion that time is real, that it’s a 4th dimension we’re capable of perceiving with our human senses as the fabric of space-time. Universal time is linear, moves in one direction, and that direction is determined by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy – the fact that the universe is constantly moving from a state of order to disorder. In what we call the forward movement of time, cause precedes effect, and order moves toward disorder and chaos. In theory, in another universe, time could move in the other direction and therefore seem normal and be considered forward to them while seeming backward to us, as said, time is relative. That’s straying from the topic at hand though.

    While all we have to do is look around us to observe time moving at different rates, for example to us a plant seems to live and move so slowly it’s easy to forget it’s alive. To them, we probably appear to be moving at warp speed and live short lives, like how we observe an insect like a house fly. Yet to actually experience a different rate of time is a lot harder than just observing something else’s subjective, perceived experience of time passage.

    Studies have been done that seem to indicate that during our lives, we DO experience different rates of time. When we’re very young, time seems to pass much faster than when we’re older, and finally as we’re very old and it’s late in our lifetime, time seems to pass much slower. This can be demonstrated as easily as asking a 10, 40, and 80 year old to measure the passage of what they believe to be one minute in their heads, and compare that to our standard measure of time with a watch when one minute has actually passed by. The 10 year olds will consistently perceive the minute to be up many seconds less than it actually is, while the middle aged 40 year old will be pretty accurate, and the elderly 80 year old will calculate it at many seconds longer than one actual minute.

    So really, you DO experience different rates of time during your own lifetime. And besides the perception of time differing between humans by age, we can experience slower or faster rates of time due to our surroundings and environment and incidents that occur, as well as due to injury or illness affecting the brain and the parts of it responsible for keeping track of time.

    A couple of examples are a man who suffered a traumatic brain injury which resulted in him being completely unable to record any new memories. He can only remember the past up to the point he suffered the injury to his brain. He is stuck in time, it doesn’t pass for him. It seems unbelievable and difficult to understand, but it’s actually somewhat like the silly movie “Fifty First Dates”. He hadn’t seen his daughter in a while before the accident, so every time he see’s her now, it’s the first time in months, even if she had walked into the room only 10 seconds ago, left, and returned. Literally. She could walk in and out of the room all day, and he would be surprised, delighted, and emotionally greet and embrace her every single time, and will for as long as he lives. Anyone he’s met since the accident is a stranger and he meet’s them for the first time every time he see’s them again, even if it’s daily.

    This unfortunate gentleman is experiencing a far different rate of time than the rest of us – he’s NOT experiencing time, he’s frozen in it at the exact date and time he went unconscious from the accident, even many years later. His experience of time is that it doesn’t move, he’s stuck in it.

    An experiment done on experiencing different rates of time was done with subjects experiencing simulated life threatening experiences, to scientifically explore the often reported experience of time slowing down for people when they are in an extremely hazardous and life threatening event. Small computers were strapped to their wrists which displayed random numbers between 0 and 1000 (I think that was the range, not 100% positive) at a very high rate of speed, making it difficult to read any number as they went by. While just sitting at rest, they were tested over something like 5 or 10 seconds to see how many numbers they could positively identify on screen, and knowing which numbers were actually displayed allowed the scientists to record how many numbers the subjects could actually pick out. The experiment was then repeated while they were being dropped from hundreds of feet on a bungee cord rig, and as they experienced the terror of free-fall they were able to accurately read a significantly higher amount of the displayed numbers, reporting that the numbers seemed to be flashing by at something like half the speed of before.

    This seems to lend evidence to the reported experience of time “slowing down” for people in traumatic events like this. It seems that it’s a built in, evolved function of our brains to be able to take in more data and at a faster rate than normal when our lives are threatened, as a defensive mechanism. Does time, universal time, ACTUALLY slow down for just that person, meaning they are a second or two younger than an identical twin of their’s after the event? No. But since time, and the rate at which is passes, is all subjective and perceived differently sometimes, than the person has in fact experienced a different rate of time. Answering your first question as yes, and the examples of time speeding up and slowing down dependent on age and situation for people, and the example of the man who time has literally stopped for, offer explanations of what these people experience when time rates change.

    Now, all of these things are just experiencing a perceived change in their personal rates of time, but since your perception IS your reality regardless of what may or may not be real to the universe or someone else, they have experienced differing rates of time. So far I’ve answered your question really more from the science of psychology than physics, but on the physics end of it, conversely and ironically, if someone were to actually experience a different rate of time in universal reality, such as traveling near the speed of light for an extended period of time so that their physical being and not just their perceived reality experienced a different rate of time, the effect they would experience would be nothing! With no sunrise and sunset to mark our typical 24 hour cycle like here on Earth, your brain would take over and experiments have revealed that our brains will quite accurately continue to keep track of time on the earthly scale and rate that we’re used to.

    A French scientist who sealed himself deep inside a cave with absolutely no outside light, and with no objects that could help keep track of the passage of time for him, he bunked out in a sleeping bag when he felt tired, ate food when he was hungry, and kept a journal in which he did his best to estimate when 24 hours had passed. After 2 months of this, he returned to the surface and it was found that his body cycles remained on a 24 hour scale and his perception of the passage of time continued at a remarkably accurate rate. He found he woke, ate his 3 meals, and slept about 8 hours every 24 hours in a cycle just about exactly the same as if he had been at home with clocks and outside events occurring to mark the passage of time for him. He didn’t need to know when it was 10 pm and time to sleep and 6 am and time to wake, he did it anyway. So on a galactic space ship, I’m sure the same thing would occur and while hundreds of years may pass in far less time, and the traveler would return to Earth to find everyone he knew dead and civilization to have progressed those hundreds of years, it would not have seemed any more time had passed than his body, mind, and clocks on the ship would tell him had passed for him.

    So while that’s a long answer that I desperately tried to keep as short as possible, it’s an engaging and fascinating subject and a wonderful question you’ve asked, in my opinion. There are some great articles out there on the same topics I tried to briefly highlight, if you want to read more. I wrote this from personal knowledge and memory of reading about the subject myself in the past, but a few of the web pages talking about exactly these things that you might find interesting are:

    10 Things Everyone Should Know About Time, a Discover Magazine article

    Why Time Appears to Speed Up with Age, a brief post and forum discussion on Hacker News

    and Time Perception, a Wikipedia article with lots of info and links to the sources of the referenced experiments and scientists discussed in the article.

    Finally, in theory, time would literally come to a complete stop at the center of a black hole as far as the popular theories go, but I don’t see how anyone could survive the trip or the destination to experience this anyway, so at best it’s a philosophical question – but nonetheless fun to think about what THAT would be like and how bizarre and exotic or maybe plain and boring it might be. That could keep you awake a few nights chewing on that thought. :D Thanks for your question, I loved having the opportunity to put in my 2+ cents on the subject from my gathered knowledge on it over the years.

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