Bullet Time Is Real: Time Slows Down When You Prepare To Move

By David Wharton | Published

After being used to great effect in The Matrix movies, the slow-motion “bullet time” effect has been used in countless other films and games. While it quickly became overused to the point of exhaustion, using slow-motion effects to suggest super-speed, heightened awareness, or amped-up reflexes can be incredibly effective if used right. As it turns out, however, our brains provide an effect very similar to bullet time, seeming to slow things down as we prepare to move or react.

As reported by Discover Magazine, new experiments by Nobuhiro Hagura at University College London have demonstrated that the world really does seem to move slower as our bodies prepare to make a movement. During the experiments, volunteers were asked to press a button while a white disc was visible on a screen, which would eventually be replaced by a hollow target. In some cases, the test subjects were told to release the button and touch the target when it appeared. In others, they were told to continue holding down the button. When they were asked how long the white disc stayed on the screen, as compared to the previous trials, the volunteers who were preparing to release the button and touch the target described the disc as staying up longer.

Hagura also ruled out the possibility that the subjects tasked with touching the target were more excited and therefore faster to react. When he ran a variation of the experiment where subjects were asked to name a letter that popped up, they didn’t report any time dilation. The scientists says that’s because their body was preparing to react, but not preparing to actually move. Presumably the time-slowing effect can be traced back to fight-or-flight reactions of our ancestors: a hunter preparing to loose an arrow at his prey, for instance.

This test results suggest that when a person is preparing to move, as opposed to actually moving, our brains speed up our ability to process information. The article also makes the comparison of a batter preparing to swing at the ball; players have described the effect before, where the ball seems to go into slow-motion somewhat as it flies toward them.

I remember being in a nasty wreck years ago, when the trailer hitched to an oncoming vehicle came loose and crossed into my lane, smashing head-on into my vehicle. I can distinctly remember the object dropping into slow motion as it came toward me and I tried to react. Once it hit and I was spinning across the road, I remember looking to my right and seeing change from my cup holder seeming to hang in mid-air until my car skidded to a stop and time returned to normal. It’s remarkable just how fluid our experience of time can be.