How slow can you go?

Federico Abatecola unravels the mystery behind the
slo-mo phenomena

The slow-motion effect is a film technique which often occurs in modern cinema and is based on the concept that, by increasing the frame rate at which a film is recorded and maintaining the same playback speed, the viewer will perceive time to slow down. This technique lends itself to a variety of uses: from the comical purposes during the early years of cinema; to Scorsese’s alienating scenes in which slow-motion serves to detach the characters’ view from the world surrounding them.

A prime example is Taxi Driver, where De Niro’s alienation and incapability to reintegrate into society is visually represented in the opening credits. In Raging Bull, the slow-motion effect has two meanings: when combined with Point-Of-View (POV) shots it helps to communicate a character’s altered emotional state (sometimes paranoid or a heightened state of awareness); while the effect is also integrated into boxing scenes to highlight and immerse the viewer into the sport’s violence and intensity.

The latter is probably the most common use of the technique nowadays and, since the release of The Matrix, slow-motion has become extremely popular in action films to show impactful, yet rapid, moments in greater detail. However, can these ‘slowed down moments’ be experienced in real life?

Reports of slow-motion-like experiences are actually quite common.

“While in films, the viewer is given more frames to observe and process,similarly in real-life there can be situations in which the brain, driven by the danger of death, processes more information than it normally would, creating a similar effect.” 

Noyes and Kletti (1976, 1977) concluded in two different studies that 75% and 72% of participants experienced external time slowing down during an accident. These situations were characterised by two key factors: the element of surprise; and the threat of imminent danger. In addition to altered perception of external time, the participants’ experiences were accompanied by increased mental sharpness and clarity.

These abilities, however, are only useful in a life-threatening scenario because, even if in some cases they can be vital for survival, they are highly energy-consuming. From a neuroscientific point of view, studies have revealed that the enhancement of cognitive processes originates from the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is synthesised, which causes us to be faster and more attentive. Therefore, the anomalous input of new information will lead to an anomalous temporal experience.

There are also rarer cases in which time slows down or freezes in unthreatening situations.

Injury to the V5 and V1 regions (two of the over thirty specialised processing areas of the visual cortex) can lead to Akinetopsia: a disorder which causes patients to see objects but not their motion. This fascinating disorder is
extremely rare, as such an injury would most likely interfere with more than
one visual function.

In conclusion, the brain’s view of the world is similar to films in some respects. It has been demonstrated that the brain does not observe the world continuously but rather in rapid snapshots, like frames in a film. Slow-motion perception can be considered a circumstance in which our brains input a higher number of snapshots.

Moreover, it is possible to see a loose similarity between these real-life
situations and the use of slow-motion in some films. Its use in Raging Bull
and hundreds of other motion pictures depicting violence, shootings, car
crashes and other terribly dangerous scenes, might portray what we would
actually experience in real life.

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