NLD Critical Thinking Experiment at Bexley High School

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Duration Dilation and Critical Analysis of Dr. David Eagleman's PlosOne Study "Does Time Slow Down During A Frightening Event?"








Critical thinking in science is one of its most important features. The problem is that not all scientists know how to do it well. Instead, they rely too much on assumptions based on previous experience, established knowledge and personal biases. Many times these assumptions are not obvious and so they are referred to as "hidden assumptions". Hidden assumptions are particularly problematic due to the fact that they can lead to errors whose cause is difficult to determine. For a National Lab Day project at Bexley High School, Marshall decided to focus on a famous study that he himself had found to be invalid. That study was by one David Eagleman, PhD from Baylor College of Medicine and was titled, Does Time Really Slow Down During a Frightening Event? and dealt with the subject of duration dilation.


Have You Ever Experienced Time Slowing Down? 


Duration dilation is the term used to describe the feeling of time slowing down, usually during a period of intense concentration or during a frightening event, such as a auto accident. Many people have reported this phenomena before, many times citing that fact that unless they had seen time in slow motion that they would have been injured or killed, as they were able to avoid such consequences because they saw things moving in slow motion. But did they really?

The answer is no, but not for the same reasons that Eagleman cites from his study. What people see is not time slowing down but their brain processing information faster so that it appears that things are happening slower. Imagine that you are standing on a street corner and a car goes past you at 75 mph. That's pretty fast, and that car, if you didn't see it coming, would go past you like a blur. However, if you jumped into a car and took off after it, the car would no longer look like a blur and in fact, as you caught up to it, it would almost look like it wasn't moving at all because you would be going at the same speed relative to the car. It's the same way with duration dilation - your brain is suddenly processing information coming into it so fast that that information appears to be happening slower than you know it should be, under normal circumstances.

Duration dilation should not be confused with time dilation, which is part of physics as opposed to psychology. Time dilation is the actual effect of time moving slower in a local reference frame due to extreme velocities or extreme gravity. Time actually dilates with any velocity or gravitational effect, it's just that the differences are so small that we don't notice them. However, time dilation due to to the Earth's gravitational field is strong enough that it must be accounted for in order for global positioning satellites (GPS systems) to work properly.  


Marshall explained all of this and more, including a new word which he taught to the class -  technocogninetics. Technocogninetics is the study of how things effect human consciousness and the reason Marshall invented the term is due to the fact that in psychology, the term that also describes this, cognitive technology, has been regulated to only refer to those things which allow for the person to respond to the stimulus that they are receiving from the thing delivering the stimulus. This relationship of stimulus and then response to the source of the stimulus is called feedback. Marshall felt that feedback is not important enough to ignore all of the many ways that things effect us which we cannot respond directly to it and so invented technocogninetics as an alternative to describe the study of those situations where feedback is not involved or at least not a prerequisite. He told the class of physics students that technocogninetics would be applied to their critical thinking exercise as a tool for them to use. 



Falling At the Speed of Fright...

David Eagleman said he wanted to study duration dilation to see if people really did see time slowing down. To do that he placed his subjects into a device called a SCAD or Suspended Catch Air Device and had them wear  monitors on their wrists with flashing numbers that flashed too fast to read under normal circumstances. The idea was that when the subjects were released into a free fall in the SCAD that they might be so frightened that they would experience duration dilation and be able to read the numbers. According to his study as published by the PlosOne online journal, however, no one did. In addition, his report stated that when asked to estimate how long it took them to hit the net after they had been released, all participants over-estimated the length of time that it took. Because of this, Eagleman claimed that duration dilation was actually a product of elongated memory, in other words, instead of the brain processing information faster during the experience, it was simply remembering the event in richer detail which made it seem in retrospective as if time had slowed down.


The students watched the video clip below to understand the experiment and prepare for the task of critical analysis.


The students next watched the video below to get a better view of the "Eagle Eye" monitor and other views of the experimental SCAD drops.
The students next watched this video made by the BBC and saw that unlike what Eagleman's study had reported, there was a subject that was able to read the first flashing number every time and the second one was close every time as well. This is the first time that they began to question the veracity of the study

 The students next task was to watch the first video clip again, this time timing the length of one the subjects falling and then at 3:51 watching to time the estimation of the length of time it took to fall by one of the subjects. 


 Then the students learned that, by applying technocogninetic analysis to the experiment, Marshall could learn the effect of the landing in the net on a person's perceptions. He looked up information on the SCAD device and found out that a person can't tell when they've hit the net. That means that all estimations would be longer than they should have been and rendering the study' conclusions null and void. The class was stunned at this but had already begun to see other problems with it as well.