THE MAN dangles on a cable hanging from an eight-storey-high tower. Suspended in a harness with his back to the ground, he sees only the face of the man above, who controls the winch that is lifting him to the top of the tower like a bundle of cargo. And then it happens. The cable suddenly unclips and he plummets towards the concrete below.
Panic sets in, but he’s been given an assignment and so, fighting his fear of death, he stares at the instrument strapped to his wrist, before falling into the sweet embrace of a safety net. A team of scientists will spend weeks studying the results.
The experiment was extreme, certainly, but the neuroscientist behind the study, David Eagleman at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, is no Dr Strangelove. When we look back at scary situations, they often seem to have occurred in slow motion. Eagleman wanted to know whether the brain’s clock actually accelerates - making external events appear abnormally slow in comparison with the brain’s workings - or whether the slo-mo is just an artefact of our memory.
It’s just one of many mysteries concerning how we experience time that we are only now beginning to crack. “Time,” says Eagleman, “is much weirder than we think it is.”