Brain Trickery – Seeing in Slow Motion

The brain is capable of endless thoughts, visions, and perceptions. It’s a complex but perfectly tuned system that operates smoothly most of the time. But sometimes things can get strange. Not necessarily abnormal, but strange nonetheless. Seeing events in a slow motion is a rare phenomenon that certainly belongs to this category of rather unusual things.

One of the patients who has experienced this effect described clearly seeing the droplets of water stop moving from the shower head while he was washing. To him, they were almost frozen in the air, giving him enough time to observe their shape and size. It was like watching a slowed down movie.

This phenomenon is known as akinetopsia, the loss of motion perception. Patients do see the objects but cannot perceive their movement for some time. The so-called Zeitruffer phenomenon is similar to akinetopsia and manifests itself as an altered (usually slowed down) perception of the velocity of the moving objects.

On the surface, the ability to perceive an object – or time itself – moving slower than “normal” could be considered as rather advantageous. For instance, in sporting events or in extreme situations when decisions need to be made in a split second, such an ability would most certainly come in handy. The problem is, the phenomenon usually points to the presence of a problem, such as stroke or epilepsy. Stroke may damage the brain’s visual cortex, and this kind of damage may lead to the inability to perceive objects moving at a particular speed. This is why symptoms often include freeze frame vision or some variation of this.

Recent research demonstrates that our brain receives visual information as a sequence of discrete snapshots, similar to the frames of a film reel. The clues that the brain gathers visual information in discrete snapshots are all around us. We are usually unable to visually register very fast movements. This lack of speed can lead to curious phenomena. For instance, the wheels of cars moving on the motorway often appear to be standing still. This happens because our brain fails to capture the intermediate snapshots of the wheel rotating between individual snapshots. As a result, at certain speeds, the wheel appear to be static.

Damage to the V5 region of the visual cortex can cause problems with the processing of these snapshots, or frames, resulting in the perceived slowing down or complete stopping of movement. The frames can also “break down”, with some parts of visual field showing the movements and others freezing. Some patients also describe the loss of synchronization between visual perception and other sensory inputs. For instance, during conversations, they might be able to hear the voices of other people normally but view them as out of sync with their facial movements.

Although akinetopsia and the Zeitruffer phenomenon are rare, it seems that in extreme circumstances, many of us might experience something similar. People who have been through life-threatening events such as car accidents or aeroplane crashes often describe a sense of time “standing still“, and an awareness that they could clearly see details they would never usually be able to perceive. This state might be linked to the sudden release of stress hormones that, in turn, trigger the speeding up of the brain’s processing mechanisms.

It also appears that the ability to process visual information faster can be trained. Elite athletes playing sports that require fast movements and snappy decision-making, such as boxers, surfers and football players, are known for their exceptional reaction speeds. It is speculated that these athletes are able either to gather more visual snapshots in the same period of time, or to analyze them much faster compared to the average person.

At present, the exciting area of neurobiology dealing with our perception of time and reality is still in infancy. We have barely scratched the surface of this enormous field of research, but already have encountered quite a few surprises. One can only wonder what future studies will uncover.


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Image via Andrey Klepikov / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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