The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

19 December 2007

Think fast

It should surprise no one that I still remember this scary little incident:

In 1985, a petroleum tanker making a left turn around a narrow corner didn't see me and attempted, quite involuntarily, to prove the law of physics that says that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time; not only did I survive, but I was able to drive away from the carnage with less than a deductible's worth of damage.

Not the easiest thing in the world to forget. Obviously this didn't happen in slow motion; just the same, I remember it unfolding slowly, deliberately, as I perceived the threat, estimated the time of arrival, and planned my response, which, I decided, would not be to throw up my hands in despair and prepare myself for a world with less traffic.

Instead, I tried to point the car, to the extent possible, at the tanker's spare-tire carrier, midway along its underside, with the ridiculous idea that if I hit the big rubber tire, I'd be bounced back just enough to save my miserable hide. Of course, if I sheared off the tire carrier and ripped open the belly of the beast, I wouldn't have to spend any time wondering how I'd failed; I'd be roasted to a crackly crunch.

Now I didn't tell you this to try to impress you with my resourcefulness. For one thing, I don't have as much of it as I'd like. What's more important, at least for the purpose of this narrative, is that while all this happened in a split second, it didn't seem to happen in a split second: time, at least from my point of view, seemed to slow down.

Which supports this premise here, I suppose:

U.S. scientists leapt off a 150-foot (45-meter) high platform in a hair-raising bid to test if time really does slow down in a crisis as film-makers like to show.

The experiment was divided into two parts. First the researchers asked volunteers to show on a stopwatch how long someone else's fall had taken, then how long their own fall took. All the participants believed their own fall had taken some 36 percent longer.

The phenomenon is explained this way:

Researchers believe that during terrifying events a part of the brain called amygdala becomes more active, adding extra memories that accompany those normally dealt with by other parts of the brain.

"In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories. And the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took. It can seem as though an event has taken an unusually long time, but it doesn't mean your immediate experience of time actually expands. It simply means that when you look back on it you believe it to have taken longer."

Which adds a certain resonance to the way I read Donald Sensing's harrowing story of spinning out on a rainy Tennessee highway. As he says:

Samuel Johnson, one of the leading literary figures of 18th-century England, wrote, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

So does spinning out at high speed in the rain on the interstate. It gives your mind a certain focus.

And his report, like mine, ends with a word of thanks pointed toward the heavens, and the knowledge that we would be forever changed by what had happened. The difference is this: he realized it a lot faster than I did.

Posted at 6:57 AM to Life and/or Death

TrackBack: 11:31 AM, 19 December 2007
» Time out of mind. from View From The Porch
Dustbury has a post up about a study of the phenomenon of time stretching during crisis situations, and relates some of his own memories involving the kind of crises that happen at the helms of motor vehicles....[read more]

I can certainly see an evolutionary benefit to saving a denser collection of memories from a crisis: if you survive it, you probably did something right, and it would be to your benefit to know what that was.

In this incident, the girl in the Honda was about to go head-on into a pickup that was, at the time, maybe an eighth of a mile ahead of me. I certainly remember some detail about the event and I wasn't even in danger of becoming directly involved. Honda Girl and the guy in the pickup now, they probably got a whole movie out of it.

(For the benefit of those who don't follow the link, the vehicles never met -- Honda Girl drove into a ditch instead.)

Posted by: McGehee at 8:28 AM on 19 December 2007