Have you ever had your brain go into slow motion in the midst of chaos? I have, more than once.
There was that time when I hydroplaned while driving in pouring rain on a Los Angeles freeway. My vehicle quickly went into a 360-degree spin across six lanes of traffic and slammed backwards into a retainer wall.
On the other side of the freeway a nurse, going in the opposite direction, did the same thing, but wasn’t so lucky. She died.
The reason I bring this up has little to do with that particular accident and everything to do with how calm I was in the midst of it all, from beginning to end. The spin seemed to last forever. I could have made a pizza from scratch, got married, had a family and divorced twice while waiting for impact.
While it was happening, I simply sat there calmly watching beams from the headlights of countless other vehicles crisscross inside my car as the cars themselves whisked by without smashing into me, thank God.
Apparently what I experienced is quite common among victims of car crashes. Things happen too quickly for fear to rear its ugly head and yet, I was able to absorb everything that was happening in horrifying detail.
It’s all very interesting and I guess that’s why scientists decided to conduct an experiment where they instructed volunteers to jump off high platforms so that they could study how the brain deals with emergencies, and whether it really slows down time.
The volunteers fell 148 feet backwards off of a platform at 70 mph for three seconds. Afterward, all of the volunteers were under the impression that the fall took 36 percent longer than it actually took.
Next the scientists strapped a watch around the wrists of volunteers to measure the speed of the mind.
These particular watches flicked through numbers at a speed that would normally be undecipherable. But the scientists thought the volunteers would be able to read the numbers because of an influx of high doses of adrenaline.
As it turned out, they couldn’t. Yet they did ultimately conclude that the part of the brain called the amygdale, in the midst of the chaos, became more active and was able to lay down extra sets of memories.
"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," said David Eagleman, an assistant professor of neuroscience and psychology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
That makes some sense, even though it really doesn’t.