I Paddle Faster at Night

By Vladimir Brezina

Illusion of speed

I love paddling at night. Not only for eminently practical reasons—to avoid the heat and humidity of New York’s summer days, for instance—but because of a remarkable visual illusion. As dusk falls, I feel myself paddling faster and faster, until I am simply flying over the water through the darkness. It’s an exhilarating feeling. If you paddle at night, no doubt you know exactly what I am talking about.

But when I look at my GPS, or for a moment emerge into the glare of shore lights, the illusion is shattered. I find that I am paddling at my usual daytime speed, if not slower.

I’ve often idly wondered what the basis of this illusion was. It seems that it’s by no means limited to paddling. According to this article, runners run faster at night, and cyclists ride their bikes faster at night. Even car drivers drive faster at night—although that might not be just an illusion :-).

The explanation given in the article is a relatively plausible one based on well-established neurological mechanisms. When we move through the world, we judge our speed by the speed of the optic flow, the coherent apparent motion of the objects in our visual field past us. But not all objects appear to move at the same speed. Nearby objects appear to move past faster than distant objects. (Indeed, this motion parallax helps us decide which objects are nearby and which are distant, a calculation that itself can generate some potent visual illusions.) Our brain balances the apparent fast movement of nearby objects and the slow movement of distant objects to determine our most likely true speed.

But at night this balance is disturbed. We see, dimly, only the fast-moving nearby objects—the waves around the kayak—and not the distant objects—the distant shoreline whose slow movement would in daytime provide a corrective balance.  At night, all the objects that we see are moving fast. Consequently, we conclude that we are moving fast through the world.

So that mystery is solved. Now I just have to worry about why time goes faster as you get older

17 responses to “I Paddle Faster at Night

  1. Johna Till Johnson

    Hi Vlad: Wow, great post!

    But what will we talk about when paddling at night, now that the mystery has been solved?

    As for the last link… seems like the lesson is obvious: Do lots of new stuff, and time will slow down to its proper speed again!


    • We will talk of many things:
      Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
      Of cabbages–and kings–
      And why the sea is boiling hot–
      And whether pigs have wings.

      As for the last link… Doing lots of new stuff is always good! And I agree that it should help. But maybe not as much as one might hope. For there is a counterargument to the explanation proposed in that article. As one of the commenters puts it, “Why does boredom take forever yet good times travel swiftly? This is the opposite of your theory.”


  2. Daylight, nightlight twilight I still paddle SLOW!


  3. Chris Schiffner has posted some beautiful photos taken from a plane flying at 10,000 feet over night-time New York City, showing some of his, and our, favorite paddling spots.

    And he notes that when flying, especially at night, the illusion works the other way: one has the feeling of moving very slowly over the landscape. Presumably, the absence of nearby objects that would show the true speed is responsible—the theory works!


  4. Pingback: Exploring Long Island Sound with 2 Geeks @ 3 Knots | Wind Against Current

  5. vastlycurious.com

    Yes, I ride my bike faster at night…the adrenaline inspired by a car hitting you whilst they text, inspires movement : )


  6. The daughter of a friend from work is in undergraduate Neuroscience major in UW, and tomorrow they’ll be having an open event “Evening with Neuroscience”. The website has a form to post questions. I won’t be able to attend because I’ll be out of town, but instead of using the form to post a question, I used it to share this post of yours. I read it here a couple years ago, and since then I’ve be experiencing with it. I rarely run or walk at night, but I tried looking forward and seeing the most distant objects and looking down watching only the path and it indeed feels faster when I’m looking only to the path… ;o)


  7. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Nighttime | Wind Against Current

  8. When I saw the challenge, I wondered if you’d have any night shots from kayaking. I had no idea if you two went out at night and now I know that you do!



  9. jessiemartinovic



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