science | July 07, 2013

Time Perception & Keeping Secrets: David Eagleman In Big Think

Science speaker David Eagleman has unlocked fascinating new explanations about the way our brains work. A highly sought after voice on neuroscience, Eagleman is a bestselling author and the founder/director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. Here are a few of his latest Big Think articles that tap into the puzzling processes that happen inside our heads.

Time Flies...Unless You're In Danger

Have you ever felt like time ground to a halt during a life-threatening situation? Many of us have probably experienced the seemingly pliable nature of time. Eagleman wanted to study this phenomemon, so he "dropped people from [a] 150 foot tall tower and [measured] their time perception on the way down." What did he find? Time isn't really slowing down. Rather, the way your brain records information changes so it seems like the event in question took a long time to pass. In times of crisis, your brain "writes down memory much more densely," Eagleman explains. "And then retrospectively, when you look at that, you have so many details that you don't normally have that it seems as though it must have lasted a very long time."

Can You Keep A Secret?

Turns out, our brains are actually wired to make secret-keeping a difficult practice. The brain, Eagleman says, "is made up of a lot of competing subpopulations that are trying to drive the ship." And, all of these different parts are competing with each other to decide whether or not to share your secrets. Part of your brain wants to share the information and part of the brain doesn't, for fear of the social ramifications. Further, keeping secrets leads to increased stress levels and more trips to the doctor.

Why You Don't Remember How Long You Were Driving In Traffic

Time seems to drag on and on when you're stuck in traffic. What's puzzling, then, is why it feels like no time had passed at all when you think back on the journey. You can also compare this feeling to remembering a plane ride as being shorter than it actually was, or, why certain days at work seem to fly right by. Eagleman says this happens because we don't record new footage to our brains during these experiences. When you do something repetitively (like drive to work everyday) nothing new really happens. So, when you look back on the time elapsed, it seems like it went by quickly because you didn't make a lot of new memories to recount. If you go to a novel location, say, a vacation, then the opposite occurs: Your mind perceives recalls a lot of new events and the length of time seems longer.