Cognitive time dilation

The other day I blogged about a recent conversation which touched on wildly differing time scales of various living things. I’ve been thinking about this topic since then, and those thoughts have meandered into various odd yet amusing directions.

In science fiction, time dilation is a well known trope. The problematic third season Star Trek episode Wink of an Eye from 1968 is based on the concept of a race of beings who exist at a super-accelerated rate.

More successfully, John D. MacDonald’s 1962 novel The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything hinges on a device that lets its user temporarily achieve the same result. This allows him to move around objects instantaneously, deflect bullets, etc.

The story works because its premise is largely played for laughs, and MacDonald knows how to write comedy. Similarly, I suspect that DC Comics’ The Flash only works in the relatively realistic setting of the recent films because the hero’s superpower is largely played for comic effect.

In reality, of course, placing a human in such a state would violate all sorts of laws of physics (which is perfectly OK in a superhero popcorn movie). But what would be similar that might not violate the laws of physics?

One possibility would be some theoretical maximum subjective rate at which a person could experience consciousness, at least for a short period of time. Imagine, for example, that you could temporarily speed up your conscious thoughts by a factor of ten.

In the three seconds of a conversational pause, you would have a subjective half a minute to ponder an optimal answer. And in an actual half a minute, you could get in a solid five minutes of thinking.

Since computers are not bound by our human limitations in processing speed, it could be very productive to use your dilated time to look things up. Inside of a mere minute you could search for an answer on the internet, read up on a topic you’d never heard of, and be ready to provide a reasonably informed response.

Considered from the perspectives of physics and thermodynamics along, one could probably derive a theoretical limit on the attainable rate of cognitive time dilation.

I wonder what the actual limit is. It may not be a factor of ten, but it may very well be significantly greater than one.

One Response to “Cognitive time dilation”

  1. Al says:

    Isn’t that the plot for limitless (2011)?

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