Suddenly, the New Yorker Flashed Right Before My Eyes!

by admin on May 2, 2011

Did you ever read an article and think, ‘wow, that was really interesting, I must remember it” and then a week or so later you can barely remember the fact that you read it let alone any of the details? Well, I have discovered a great way to embed certain things in your brain permanently. Simply follow whatever it is you are trying to remember with a life or death experience!

That just happened to me. I just finished reading a fascinating article in the New Yorker magazine by Burkhard Bilger called The Possibilian”. It was about a scientist called David Eagleman who was fascinated by – among other things – the perception of time slowing down at moments of heightened tension or drama. He had done a number of studies to try and understand what happened and how our brains reacted to these kinds of situations, and to see if in fact time did appear to slow down at extreme moments in our lives.

I could have saved him the bother because, today, I just proved it. The fabulous Shirley and I were driving back to San Francisco from the Russian River. It was a gorgeous early spring day, sun shining, hills a lush green landscape dotted with dazzling spring flowers. We took the quieter country road because we wanted to enjoy the scenery. A number of other cars had the same idea and soon there was a line of about six cars. As we neared a farm the front car indicated it was going to turn left into the driveway and slowed down, I was behind it and I slowed down. Unfortunately all the other drivers seemed to be too busy enjoying the scenery to notice what was happening up ahead because none of them showed any signs of stopping.

It’s a really rather uncomfortable feeling, sitting in your car, unable to move ahead without hitting the car in front, and seeing all these other cars coming at you very fast. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to do, except, sit, and wait, and hope. Finally, the driver behind me saw what was happening and slammed on her brakes, and that started a cascade of red lights and screeching tires as each car in turn tried to avoid a pile-up.

The last car in the caravan wasn’t so fortunate. It was a big SUV and it was hauling a speed boat and it was going too fast to be able to stop in time. So, instead of piling into the car in front of him the driver steered his car to the side of the road, smashing through the long grass and flowers, narrowly missing all the other cars until he eventually came to a halt, level with us.

A quick look over and it was clear the folks in the car were shaken, but not hurt. They were incredibly lucky, had there been a ditch they would have almost certainly rolled over. Had there been a tree or fence in the way, they would have come to a much more abrupt halt. As it was, probably the only damage was to their nerves.

It all happened in a flash, a matter of seconds, yet it seemed to go on for ages. I can recall looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the look of terror on the face of the woman coming up fast behind me when she realized I had stopped. I can recall the individual sounds as the other drivers all took evasive action. And I can still hear in my head the shwssssshhhhhhh sound the last car made as it raced through the long grass and flowers.

The New Yorker article describes that moment perfectly; “in life-threatening situations, time seems to slow down…. It’s a moment of absolute calm and eerie mental acuity.”

And it’s true. I don’t recall being scared as I witnessed all this happening, just very aware that this was something over which I had no control. You become almost detached, standing off to the side watching your life take a direction you hadn’t planned on.

Suddenly the lessons and conclusions of the article were firmly embedded in my brain, not in my short-term but in my long-term memory. The piece itself goes on to follow Eagleman as he tried to answer the question “Why does time slow down when we fear for our lives? Does the brain shift gears for a few suspended seconds and perceive the world at half speed , or is some other mechanism at work?”

For me it was also a reminder that our lives are really rather precarious. Even when we do everything right, things may turn out wrong because we have no control over others. Their actions, as much as our own, determine what will happen to us. Our fate is in the hands of a man driving a large SUV, towing a big speed boat, who is not really paying attention to the world in front of him.

This time it worked out. But what about the next time. Or the time after that. And maybe the time after that the person not paying attention will be me. Will I be so lucky to react quickly enough to avoid a crash?

Hopefully this experience will make everyone involved in the different cars be more aware of what’s happening around them, what they are doing and what others are doing. Not just when they are driving but in other aspects of their life. Just to be focused on where you are and who you are with and what you are doing can really change the way you see the world around you. And change the way you see the people around you. And probably for the better.

As for the rest of the New Yorker article and its conclusions about time, well it’s fascinating stuff, and well worth reading.

As for me. I think I’ve done enough research for today. I need to go lie down.



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