The currently- running Marvel Knights: Spider-Man mini-series is a brain-bender of a book, both for protagonist Peter Parker and for the unsuspecting readers who decide to follow his journey through a drug-addled gauntlet of villainy. In this tale penned by Mind MGMT scribe Matt Kindt, mastermind Arcade slips the intrepid arachnid an undescribed mickey that alters how he sees the world around him, just in time to face off against 99 of his most loathsome adversaries.


Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1

As AiPT contributor David Brooke pointed out in his review of the first issue, the art of Marco Rudy is tailor-made for this twisted trip to the brain, unleashing on us a torrent of distorted perception. In issue #4, Peter begins to wonder about how biology affects our image of the world. The junk must have a pretty tight hold on him, because he seems to forget a lot of his science training in so doing.

Time dilation is a real thing, but it’s a physical consequence of Einstein’s theory of relativity, not just a brain trick. Despite its consistently proven reality, relativity’s wholly unfamiliar effects can still be as much of a mindfuck as any psychotropic drug, predicting that an object’s mass increases as it accelerates, and the rate through which that object passes through time will seem to slow to an observer in a reference frame at “rest.” As I mentioned when speaking of the time-traveling X-Men, that’s how you can effectively travel to the future by moving really fast; slow your own aging while everything grows old around you. But that’s simply due to velocity through space, whether you’re stressed out or cool as a cucumber.

The bugged-out bug is at least partially right here. Human perception of time actually does change, perhaps most obviously as one gets older. We all remember how, as children, the school year seemed endless, but as we age, the months begin to go by in the blink of an eye. That’s an idea that can be tested, as psychologist Peter A. Mangan did in a study published in 1998 that showed subjects in their early 20’s were very good at estimating a three minute length of time, whereas those in their 60’s overshot it by a good 40 seconds.

But why is that? No one’s quite sure, but many neuroscientists think it has to do with how our metabolism slows over the course of our lifetimes, an idea that’s been bolstered by recent research into how other animals perceive time. An ensemble group of UK researchers showed last year that the faster an animal lives—the higher its metabolism—the slower it perceives the passage of time, allowing highly energetic houseflies to dodge that swatter like Neo bending over bullets in The Matrix.

Here’s what Spidey’s really getting at. While undergoing some kind of intense stress, lots of us have had the experience where time seems to slow down and our reaction speeds and senses appear to enhance. Is that effect real? David Eagleman of Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine says no.

Eagleman reached that conclusion with a brilliant and somewhat sadistic experiment that involved shoving subjects off a 150-foot tall tower and testing whether they were able to distinguish the numbers displayed on a random generator that flashed the images faster than a non-stressed person can see them. Sadly for storytellers everywhere, the adrenaline-soaked subjects still weren’t able identify what they’d seen. They weren’t seeing in slow motion.

Eagleman further explained that memories during times of terror are laid down more “richly and densely,” so there’s plenty of information to go back to after the fact to figure out what happened, which accounts for the perception of greater resolution. There’s your brain trick. He also offers this as an alternative explanation as to why time seems slower when we’re kids. It could just be that everything is so new we’re constantly laying down thick memories from which to draw, whereas old codgers have seen it all and don’t need to devote all that hard drive space anymore.