All Over in the Blink of an Eye (but Not the Mind’s Eye)

From The Age newspaper in Australia, via, comes this surprising, sobering “anatomy of a crash,” the car in question being the 5-star Ford Falcon (the one made in Australia, not the one your father had when he was young).

The article leads by noting: “Survivors of serious car crashes often say time appears to slow down in the moments around the impact and that they can recall the event in extraordinary detail.” (and somehow the images we always see of crash-test dummies in slow motion tends to reinforce that).

But an actual reconstruction of the events shows the sort of reshuffling of the deck the brain is playing with memory:

“This is a reconstruction of a crash involving a stationary Ford Falcon XT sedan being struck in the driver’s door by another vehicle travelling at 50 km/h.

One millisecond equals 1/1000th of a second.
0 milliseconds – An external object touches the driver’s door.
1 ms – The car’s door pressure sensor detects a pressure wave.
2 ms – An acceleration sensor in the C-pillar behind the rear door also detects a crash event.
2.5 ms – A sensor in the car’s centre detects crash vibrations.
5 ms – Car’s crash computer checks for insignificant crash events, such as a shopping trolley impact or incidental contact. It is still working out the severity of the crash. Door intrusion structure begins to absorb energy.
6.5 ms – Door pressure sensor registers peak pressures.
7 ms – Crash computer confirms a serious crash and calculates its actions.
8 ms – Computer sends a “fire” signal to side airbag. Meanwhile, B-pillar begins to crumple inwards and energy begins to transfer into cross-car load path beneath the occupant.
8.5 ms – Side airbag system fires.
15 ms – Roof begins to absorb part of the impact. Airbag bursts through seat foam and begins to fill.
17 ms – Cross-car load path and structure under rear seat reach maximum load.
Airbag covers occupant’s chest and begins to push the shoulder away from impact zone.
20 ms – Door and B-pillar begin to push on front seat. Airbag begins to push occupant’s chest away from the impact.
27 ms – Impact velocity has halved from 50 km/h to 23.5 km/h. A “pusher block” in the seat moves occupant’s pelvis away from impact zone. Airbag starts controlled deflation.
30 ms – The Falcon has absorbed all crash energy. Airbag remains in place. For a brief moment, occupant experiences maximum force equal to 12 times the force of gravity.
45 ms – Occupant and airbag move together with deforming side structure.
50 ms – Crash computer unlocks car’s doors. Passenger safety cell begins to rebound, pushing doors away from occupant.
70 ms – Airbag continues to deflate. Occupant moves back towards middle of car.
Engineers classify crash as “complete”.
150-300 ms – Occupant becomes aware of collision.”

What’s fascinating about all this is not simply the rapid fire technology at work (I’m still trying to deal with that computer deciding whether it was a shopping trolley or another car that has struck), but how much has gone on before we even register it — and this at 50 km (31 mph), so you can imagine what’s happening at higher speeds — even though in our subsequent reconstruction of events we may have imagined that time actually slowed down the during the event.

I couldn’t help but think of the work of David Eagleman, of the Baylor College of Medicine, in this regard. In his paper “Does Time Really Slow During a Frightening Event?”, Eagleman, through some clever techniques involving a (somewhat paradoxical) “controlled free-fall system,” found that rather than time actually slowing, a la the fight scenes in The Matrix, what seems to be going on, the researchers speculated, is “that the involvement of the amygdala in emotional memory may lead to dilated duration judgments retrospectively, due to a richer, and perhaps secondary encoding of the memories. Upon later readout, such highly salient events may be erroneously interpreted to have spanned a greater period of time.”

In other words, because of the nature of the event, people may have had, essentially, more of a memory of it, so when they later thought of it, it took longer to “replay.” But in the case of the Falcon, the event was essentially over before the driver would have realized what was happening.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008 at 4:04 pm and is filed under Cars, Etc., Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “All Over in the Blink of an Eye (but Not the Mind’s Eye)”

  1. sven Says:

    I don’t know what to think of it.

    When I was hit by a car some years ago, I actually decided do jump up and roll to avoid car crushing my feet. That worked – I lost conciousness from impact and crushed the front window, but survived without being hurt otherwise.

  2. kcom Says:

    Yes, Sven, I think there are definitely two different issues here. The article is talking about the impact itself and the progression thereof, which is obviously very quick. But I think what people are talking about when they say time slows down is the time before the impact when they realize an accident is about to happen but that they can’t do anything to prevent it. That moment or two can stretch on quite long in the mind. Similar to your story, my sister’s car once slid in the rain and turned sideways. She pulled her legs out of the pedal area when she saw a car coming towards her and avoided injury when the oncoming car crushed the part of her car where her legs had just been. She definitely had time to react to the impending impact and I’m sure it seemed like time was moving slowly (and quickly) in those fractions of a second.

  3. Gordon Says:

    Interesting article. One explanation might be that although the person has a much higher latency than the computer (150ms vs 5ms), sampling of sensory data and storage rates may greatly increase in traumatic situations. It would be interesting to compare human sampling rates vs the computers for an extremely short duration event like this. If you used the minimal frame rates required to prevent stutter in video of 30 frames per sec as a guide, that would mean that during that latency period all senses would process 5 events. And if normally these would be discarded, then the mind would have a lot more data to review about this traumatic time period than a normal time period.

  4. Oligonicella Says:

    Your scenario presumes the person was unaware the event was impending.
    Most of the related instances of slowed time that I’ve heard directly were like mine; I saw the wreck before impact. I remember thinking and observing things during the wreck, not after.

  5. Barry Says:


    I would assume you had some warning…however slight and possibly subconsciously…of the impending collision therefore you were preconditioned to action. The study quoted above seems to omit any pre-collision warning from the equation, but I’ll have to read it further.

    The bottom line is that in most collisions the driver or occupants have some warning of the event and that is what enables the detailed post-collision “Matrix”-style playback.

  6. bbbeard Says:

    I remember the first time I experienced free-fall during skydiving training. My memory, starting from immediately after the event, is that I was aware of every millisecond as it passed.

    Back in the day, one started training for skydiving by executing a series of five “static line” jumps, in which a strap connects your ripcord to the airplane. The last three of the five were dummy ripcord pulls (DRCPs), in which one went through the motions of stabilizing oneself and then pulling the ripcord.

    The sixth jump was a free-fall, which feels surprisingly different from a DRCP. At least, I was surprised. The chute deploys *much* later in a real free-fall jump — maybe 800 milliseconds later. I recall vividly the feeling I had after pulling my ripcord that something was wrong, I didn’t have a canopy — and both my hands went back to the ripcord, and I was pulling out what seemed like a yard of ripcord, all the while tilting head-downward… then the chute deployed, I remember it brushing by my heel, and the whole world started rocking back and forth crazily. Then I was stable under a canopy.

    The whole process took perhaps two seconds. But the time-slowing-down stress-memory phenomenon is definitely real….


  7. JM Hawkins Says:

    Well, the timeline is missing a few events that explain the slow motion feeling.

    -4000 ms: Driver sees car rapidly approaching from cross-street.
    -3000 ms: Driver wonders “Is that guy going to stop?”
    -2000 ms: Driver concludes “He’s NOT going to stop!”
    -1999 ms: Driver’s brain begins frantic search for avoidance strategy
    -1998 ms: Driver’s brain begins simultaneous search of vocabulary for suitable words to express opinion on situation
    -1000 ms: Driver notices expression of person driving car that is about to hit him. Also notes obvious character defects in other driver’s face.
    -2 ms: Driver’s brain gives up finding effective avoidance strategy, begins replaying life story
    0 ms: external object touches car door.

    I was in the middle of a seven-car pile up some years ago (without actually getting hit myself), and I distinctly remember the beautiful cloud of metallic blue paint flakes that rose up from the Ford Mustang when it rear-ended a station wagon. They seemed to hang there for ages.

  8. codepoke Says:

    Fascinating, and I enjoyed it immensely and completely believe it. But it’s apples to oranges.

    I was in a near collision several years ago. It was my own darned fault, so I cannot take much credit here, but I cycled through a number of options, chose one, and implemented it much more quickly than I would in any other situation. You have a lot more than 300 ms to react to a developing situation, and that’s the scenario in my mind when I think of this subject.

    Yes, if I were looking to the right when a car hit me from the left, it would all be over before I could react. That’s a given. It would be several seconds before I had any idea what had happened at all. The question at hand is whether we process with increased clarity and speed under life-threatening pressure, and the answer is certainly yes.

  9. John Says:

    I think that when most people describe time as slowing during a car crash, they are referring to an event where the can “see” the accident coming before the impact actually occurs. It’s those 1.5 seconds where you sense the car is skidding on ice, out of your control, and you can see the stopped car in front of you getting bigger by the millisecond.

    It’s the anticipation of something dangerous that you *know* you are powerless to stop that engenders a feeling of slowed time.

  10. embutler Says:

    they did a test using a readout device…. during a no-stress section the readout was so fast ,the person could not see the numbers..
    when put under a rapid free fall event, the testor could recall the same readout he couldnt previously read..
    proof that the brain speeds up in a crisis..

  11. Jamie Says:

    IANAE (does that work? “I am not an engineer”), but this analogy occurred to me: A 3 mpx digital photo can be blown up to, what, 5″x8″ before the pixelations become visible. A 5 mpx photo, to 8″x10″ (or whatever – I’m not looking them up at present). The light is there all along; ditto the actual real-life details. But not all are recorded. More pixels=more information capable of being examined in detail. So maybe in life-threatening situations, the brain functions like a higher-resolution camera than usual, storing more of what it always instantaneously observes (but does not necessarily store) for later review – a survival advantage helping us to prepare for future events. The effect is that the “picture” has more detail, and because we’re talking a 4-D “object,” part of the later review is a perception of longer time, since we’re used to x amount of detail in our memory-picture and what we’re remembering about the life-threatening event has x+1 detail.

    I dunno. Fascinating timeline, though.

  12. Stephan F- Says:

    I remember all kinds of things from my accident, including noticing the shockwave as it crunched up the hood of the car.

    In my engineering classes we tested and learned that most people have a reaction time of 200-250ms.
    Based on the skid measurements in the police report and this knowledge I figured that I became aware of the impending accident 800ms or about 56feet before it occurred. At -600ms I got to the brakes and at -400ms I was turning the wheel, by -200ms I knew I was out of options and riding it in.
    Later, the police liaison I talked to expressed amazement that I had actually got on the brakes at all, actually at 70mph turning the wheel does no good at all except for making a lot of noise. A drunk driver fell asleep and crossed the median at 85mph.

    I have since learned a bit about the psychology of fear and survival and it is pretty obvious that our brains will prioritize sensory inputs in an attempt to maximize personal survival. Tunnel vision and distorted hearing are just two of the things that happen, though for me my vision was dramatically enhanced and hearing was practically shutdown, though after the impact when I regained consciousness it was the other way around. It took some time before my senses returned to normal.

    The brain does amazing things sometimes, we have a long way to go before understanding it completely.

  13. August Boehm Says:

    Great to see people thinking outside the square; outside of the time of the physical collision; that one’s perception of the crash can be predictive due to environmental signs before the moment of impact.

    What Eagleman (et al) were trying to say simply is that the perceived time duration of a high intensity event expands upon it’s recollection.

    High intensity events are where there is an acceleration of stimuli due to the reduction of safety buffers, ie getting closer to danger. Such an ecstatic moment increases adrenaline and heightens the senses, allowing any memory to be much more vivid than a memory made in a low intensity event.

  14. Kevin Leach Says:

    What a great read. Leads me to believe that we know less than than we thought about how the mind, memory and time work in relation to each other.

    I too, have had similar experiences with this perceived (and isn’t that what we’re dealing with here?) slowing of time. I think that we’re far more aware subconsciously than what we realize. We are fully aware walking storage devices sampling life as we live it. When we encounter an extreme situation all our senses come to life in a brief moment of fight or flight. Our entire being is suddenly (and sometimes violently) focused on a momentary flash of sensory input. Sight, sound, touch, taste, etc, all now subconsciously recording a single event in a way that no computer can ever emulate.
    It’s over in the blink of an eye. It is only afterward, when we’re reviewing all the data do we perceive the dilation of time.

    I’ve been hypnotized several times over my lifetime (47yrs) and it’s incredible the amount of detail one absorbs in a very short time frame.

    I agree that we have a long way to go before we ever begin to understand it clearly and completely.

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