An extreme slowing down of time is often reported after accidents and frightening events. People report that the world, relative to the observer, was moving in slow motion. Most likely, these experiences stem from an increased physiological arousal level in a fight-and-flight situation, which for a short period of time, speeds up internal processes to a maximum [see my previous Psychology Today blog: The Matrix Effect].

After life-threatening situations, people who survived a heart attack or nearly drowned sometimes report of altered states of consciousness occurring during an episode of apparent unconsciousness, having a so-called "near-death experience" (NDE). Reports and research on NDEs give wide coverage to the special contents that people report, such as seeing a light, a tunnel, having an out-of-body experience, and feeling extremely calm. In studies conducted by Bruce Greyson in the 1980s and '90s, it was discovered that 60 to 70 percent of respondents with NDEs reported that “time stopped or lost meaning.”

Besides these pioneering studies by Bruce Greyson and further anecdotal accounts, not many investigations exist that systematically have explored the experience of time during NDEs. Therefore, we wanted to analyze a publicly available web-based data bank from the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, which contains a growing number of self-reports. We published an English language article in the German journal Zeitschrift für Anomalistik (the PDF can be retrieved here: "Subjective time distortion during near-death experiences: an analysis of reports"). We covered a considerable time range by selecting 196 individual reports from three time periods: 1998 to 2001, the year 2010, and January to March 2017. Building on Bruce Greyson’s questionnaire, the item of “Did time seem to speed up or slow down?” has three answers:

  1. No. 
  2. Time seemed to go faster or slower than usual.
  3. Everything seemed to be happening at once; or time stopped, or lost all meaning.

In addition to these answer categories, participants are encouraged to write down their own stories.

Our analysis shows that 127 of the 196 individuals reported a change in subjective time (65 percent). 120 of these 127 persons reported a feeling of timelessness (94 percent). The different stories people wrote down bear witness of individual variations, but they can still be interpreted as the impression of a lost sense of the passage of time.

Typical examples of non-standardized answers were:

  • Concept of completely distorted time: Long? Short? It didn't make sense.
  • I could feel infinity. It was as if I was completely aware of how long I had been there and the absence of time altogether, at the same time, if that makes sense. I remember being surprised later when I learned I was only out for 30 seconds or less.
  • Time was not thought of. Time was just time.
  • It was nonexistent or everything was 'now.'

Our study complements the previous investigations by Bruce Greyson showing an extremely distorted subjective time in a majority of people who had an NDE. What may cause the radical change in subjective time during NDEs is still a completely open question. The label ‘feeling of timelessness’ is reported by people experiencing altered states of consciousness as induced through very different means such as during meditation or after ingesting hallucinogenic drugs. It is part of an overall experiential narrative of becoming one with the surrounding, the sense of a collapse of the past and future into an eternal presence, or the notion that time is nonexistent. In studying meditation or drug effects, one can further investigate how during extreme states of consciousness the feeling of ‘timelessness’ can arise. We then will also understand better what happens during NDEs.

References

Wittmann M, Neumaier L, Evrard R, Weibel A, Schmied-Knittel I (2017). Subjective time distortion during near-death experiences: an analysis of reports. Zeitschrift für Anomalistik 17, 309–320.

Greyson B (1983). The near-death experience scale: construction, reliability and validity. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 171, 369–375.

Greyson B (1990). Near-death encounters with and without near-death experiences: comparative NDE Scale profiles. Journal of Near-Death Studies 8, 151–161.

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