Archive for November 1st, 2009

Who among us would not like to have more time? The single biggest complaint I hear from busy people is that if they just had more of it they would be able to do so many things now made impossible by their already crowded schedules.

I remember a Star Trek episode with the original cast, i.e., William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in which his love interest was a woman who could slow time at will. In one scene, she causes both her perception, and the Captain’s, of a nearby hummingbird, to slow to the point where they could see its wings flapping. I was, and still am, intrigued by that scene.

As science fiction so often prophecies science fact, it makes me wonder if such a  thing could be possible. Can the mind alter time in material ways? Well, we need wait no longer it seems.

According to results of recent  experiments in psychophysics (reported by Douglas Fox in the October 24-30, 2009 issue of the New Scientist, published out of the U.K.), the mechanisms for “slowing or speeding up time” are revealing themselves to us. We all know that subjective time is amazingly elastic.

Having fun? Well then time just flies by. Working or feeling bored? Well then time can seem interminable.  Want to really slow time down? Put on a pot of coffee and wait for it to brew. Now, admit it. Haven’t you impatiently pulled the pot out from under the machine to grab that first bit, trying to do it fast enough to avoid spilling coffee all over the machine and the counter? (Or, are you just so good?)

Forget the “Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” There is the real case, also summarized in the New Scientist issue, of one “BW.” While driving his car one day, he felt it accelerate to enormous speeds (subjectively as much as 300 kilometers per hour), and as things whizzed by faster and faster, he became so alarmed that he  had to pull over.

It turns out that the poor man had a temporal lobe tumor that was affecting his sense of time, but in the direction opposite his perception. In fact, counting to 60 seconds took him 280 seconds to carry out. He was slowing down. Could this effect shed light on how we might actually buy ourselves more time?

The research of experimental Psychologist John Weardon, at Keele University in the U.K., looks at precisely this question. He found that by exposing subjects to rapid acoustic clicking, for a short time, resulted in their estimating a 10% to 20% increase in the length of a next sound or light burst. Following up, Luke Jones at the University of Manchester found that by exposing people to rapid clicks before a series of tasks increased their performance by 10% to 20 %. What’s going on?

Rufin VanRullen, a neuroscientist at the University of Toulouse, France, and David Eagleman at Baylor College of Medicine, have uncovered a plausible explanation. The brain processes visual and acoustic stimuli in frames like an SLR camera. This is significant because the rate at which frames are formed may vary for different objects in our sensory field. So, our perception of time is quite variable.

When something critical occurs or we are frightened, the brain adapts by increasing the frame capture rate, and, thereby, the density of acoustic or image details, whereas in cases of casual viewing, the rate may be quite lower, and so the details become leaner. For example, I recall the experience of a car accident I had last year; I was stopped at a red light and moved into the intersection a few seconds after the light had turned green. A truck, coming through the intersection from my left, and running a red light, broad-sided me.

I still remember the slow-motion process of literally seeing the front of the truck, the details on the grill, and the headlights as it drew nearer my door. It all took under a second, but it felt much longer. Greater frame capture and detail appears to be correlated with the subjective experience of time moving more slowly along with performance improvements on various tasks.

Adding more depth to the explanation of the phenomenon, neuroscientist Edward Large, at Florida Atlantic University, argues that acoustic clicks may entrain high frequency gamma brain waves: an underlying neural mechanism associated with the capture of more frames or snapshots. In fact, neurofeedback has almost never studied gamma frequencies since the technology to do so hasn’t, until recently, been available.

All of these findings are exciting, as I recall the research of biophysicist Beverly Rubik, who has found that some, but not all, meditators, connected to neurofeedback recording devices while in meditation, have brain oscillations in the high frequency gamma range. This is fascinating since we tend to think of meditation as a “slowing down.” In fact, relaxation training targets activity in the slower wavelengths, or the so-called alpha wave energy level. Perhaps the real slowing of time involves speeding up neural processing, or “frame rates,” so that our vision of reality becomes more richly detailed.

In such an  instance, we too may be able to profoundly slow time. Practically, it makes me wonder about the practice of ringing a gong in slow rhythmic ways to introduce Zen sitting. Maybe, instead, it would be fruitful to begin a meditation with a metronomic beat at higher “clicks” before initiating zazen or contemplative prayer.

In any event, I’ve been looking for a new use for the metronome on my piano. I think I just found it.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.


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