If you've ever felt like time slows down as a baseball hurtles towards you, you're not alone. In fact, a series of new experiments suggests that our perception of time slows to varying degrees as we prepare to make physical actions—which could explain why some pros are so damn good.
The research, carried out at University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, tested the idea of time dilation prior to motor action using a series of tests. Dr Nobuhiro Hagura, one of the researchers, explains to the BBC:
"John McEnroe has reported that he feels time slows down as he is about to hit the ball, and F1 drivers report something very similar when overtaking. Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced. So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower."
To check it out, the UCL team carried out tests that examined how volunteers reacted to flashing lights and flickering discs on a screen. They found that when participants were asked to tap the screen, they felt they had more time to process information than those who were asked not to make arm movements. Not just that: the more prepared the subjects were to move, the longer the time they thought they had. The results are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
So how the hell does that work? Truth is, we're not exactly sure. But it could be an evolved trait—which exploits the fact that parts of the brain used to encode the passage of time and prepare movement are connected—that helps us tweak our actions on the fly in response to changes in our environment. The more heightened that trait, perhaps, the better the ball player. [Proceedings of the Royal Society B via BBC]
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