Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Time out of mind.

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.

From my experience, I have to say that I agree the phenomenon is almost definitely one that is generated in memory, rather than something that actually occurs during the incident. I've never been in an accident in a four-wheeled vehicle, but I have had two depart from controlled flight underneath me (an old Dodge Dart that swapped ends on a busy five-lane thoroughfare when the secondaries cut in in a tight bend and a Fiero that ground-looped several times through a crowded, rain-slick parking lot) and one near-miss (an oil slick that had the Zed Three fishtailing half the length of a freeway on-ramp while I sawed wildly at the wheel) and all three of those incidents are still available in excruciating technicolor in my mind's eye, despite the earliest one being nearly two decades old.

What makes me convinced that this is a function of memory rather than something that happens in real time during the actual event are my experiences on motorcycles. All the countless near-misses are still there in memory, suitably dilated in time, but the ones without happy endings are shockingly brief; one minute you're riding along and notice something about to be wrong and then *BAM!*, the rough hand of physics smacks you to the asphalt like a broken doll and there's almost no how-I-got-from-there-to-here involved. Like the sticker on my old helmet says: "It went earth, sky, earth, sky, earth, sky, earth, ambulance."

A guy I once knew who played football through his scholastic career described hard tackles the same way. He said that the ones he could see coming seemed to last forever, but when it was a blindside hit he went from standing up to wondering why his helmet was full of grass in the blink of an eye.

30 comments:

Robb Allen said...

Well, that's an interesting way of observing it, but I'm of the other mind.

I've been in countless "near" accidents. When that happens, my reaction time simply goes exponential. I can think "faster" so to speak. I see the cars moving and can avoid them (and my lack of auto accidents speaks to this). It's not simply memory as, since this seems to happen to me on a regular basis, while it's happening I can realize it.

I think we can increase our temporal resolution (usually with a decrease in spacial resolution - why things appear "large" or "out of focus") at times. I think that's part of what makes certain football players so good - they can perceive time at a different rate and react accordingly.

Granted, nothing I can describe isn't from memory. Technically, I could have just been born this morning and everything I know is fake. If that's the case, I'm pissed they didn't inject memories of several Victoria Secret Models and a 50BMG.

Tam said...

"I've been in countless "near" accidents. When that happens, my reaction time simply goes exponential. I can think "faster" so to speak."

I don't think you're thinking faster, I think you're just experiencing total concentration. When you're trying to countersteer around the bumper of the idiot that just pulled out in front of you, your mind is putting all its effort on that and not wasting any time remembering that you have overdue bills or that you need to pick up some sugar at the grocery store...

Less said...

I've got to agree with Robb here...

But the thing to notice is that when a situation is going south and you're aware of it, that time seems to slow. The situations where you aren't aware of it seem to catch you off guard.

From my boxing experience it's the "phantom hooks" that kayo you, not the regular dance. During the regular dance, things just seem to take forever, though, since you are so concentrated on playing the game - kinda like letting a shot break during bullesys or something - it's like an eternity in an instant...

Less said...

Tam, didn't see your post...

I can buy that definition, though.

"Total Concentration"

The Duck said...

Massad Ayoob calls it Tachpasha or something like that, the preception, is the brain gathering as much info as it can therefore it seems slow motion, but it's not.(approx 86% report things slow down, 14% things speed up.)
Recent research claims the reason that we remember things so clearly, are sort of tiny PTSD events, & that is why they seemed locked in the memory. There is a link between the amount of adrenaline, injected into the body , & the size & trauma of the event, even when we are not involved directly in the trauma.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

100% agreed, even though the only time I can remember ever being truly blindsided was when I was a little kid, 6-7 or so, running around the playground at school when a neighbor's 100+ pound Dane took my legs out from under me from behind at a full gallop. *runrunrun* *WHOOMP* whoah...

Heh, I wish I knew how long the totalling of the Daewoo actually took. Still seems like 30+ seconds.

OA said...

"A guy I once knew who played football through his scholastic career described hard tackles the same way. He said that the ones he could see coming seemed to last forever, but when it was a blindside hit he went from standing up to wondering why his helmet was full of grass in the blink of an eye."

Same here. Slow motion versus "Bugger! Grass? Head on a swivel for the crackback, dumbass".

Robb Allen said...

Actually, Tam, you're pretty much spot on with the "Total Concentration" thing.

Think of a computer chip. It can do X calculations per unit of time. When several programs are running, they have to share the "time slices" in order to appear like they are multitasking. Give a single application all the CPU and it will run faster.

I think the same thing happens to us mentally. When we are given the chance, we put all our other "processes" on hold and give the current issue full control of the slices of time. Because of that, the temporal resolution that we normally associate with the thousands of things we do at the same time is fed into a single instance. Counter intuitively, the higher "resolution" will cause things to appear 'slower'.

Then, like you said, the sheer amount of data you collected during that amount of time will also slow it down upon recollection. But honestly, there have been many times where I've been able to think to myself "Whoa! I'm in slow motion!" and act accordingly.

Granted said...

Drawing from my one severe motorcycle accident, it was composed of the words "Oh shit" followed by lots and lots of pain. I remember everything that happened after that with incredible clarity, but the accident... I didn't even get earth, sky, just the site of impending doom as the car came at me head on followed by tons of pain as I landed on the far side of the car (most of the damage was done by the bike landing directly on me on the far side of the car).

I buy the adrenaline memory link because there wasn't any time during the accident for my body to get pumped. Afterwards, tons of it.

Billy Beck said...

I didn't know that the drunk driver who destroyed my Harley was even on the planet until he had his two right wheels in my lane, right next to me, and closing. He was closing me at about thirty miles an hour and trying to pass me. As he went, his right-rear quarter-panel impacted the left side of my front wheel axle. I can still see that happening in ultra-slow motion. The duration of that part of the event -- from first appearance to impact -- could not have been two seconds.

I could story-board a film of the whole thing, from "What The Fuck?" start to "Holy Shit I'm Alive" finish.

Adrian said...

Interesting.

I must say though, that on Tuesday night of last week, just before I hit the ground, I did have enough time to concur that 1) the impact was going to suck and 2) that I had locked up the front brake just like I had 5.5 years before and 3) the back end was coming up and around.

While it may only be memory, I'm more or less with robb allen on this one.

Thankfully, all I did was bust my right arm. The armor adequately absorbed all the other bodily impacts.

MadRocketScientist said...

Having been in three major accidents (2 in cars, one on a bike; I gotta get that target removed from my head), I can attest to this as well. I don't have many memories of the bike wreck since I got blindsided and all I recall was riding and then waking up in ICU, but the two car wrecks are vivid.

In the last one, I saw the Volvo (with the soon to be deceased drunk behind the wheel) cross the center line in front of me. The image of an '89 Volvo front end is forever burned into my memory. I WATCHED the airbag deploy. I can describe in stunning detail how it unfolded in front of me. I remember relaxing myself and falling into it in slow motion. All of it perfectly silent.

And then it all went back to normal and I heard my passengers screaming and myself telling everyone to get out of the car and asking if everyone was OK (they weren't, but we all lived).

Billy Beck said...

"But honestly, there have been many times where I've been able to think to myself 'Whoa! I'm in slow motion!' and act accordingly."

I once had an airplane get drastically out of shape on me by surprise. The thing went through about 100 degrees of pitch, nearly 180 degrees of yaw, and about 80 degrees of roll, in not much more than a second. (It was, actually, an inadvertent but nearly perfect over-the-top spin-entry, during an accelerated-stall exercise, solo, during which I'd forgotten the right RPM numbers.) I was later amazed that I'd been able to get the right control inputs -- throttle to idle and neutral stick and rudder -- in that tiny little window of time. I didn't realize the event was over until I understood the implications of nothing but Lake Lanier holding steady in the windshield and an altimeter winding-down from 4500 feet a lot more rapidly than was making me happy.

In the brief time that it was happening, however, all the synapses fired just right, and those control inputs worked out perfectly.

Training can have a lot to do with it.

The Duck said...

Well I really thought Lady D was going to miss that pole Sunday, I saw it coming as she went off the road, then the car seemed to speed up, Then BAM airbag in face as we bounced off the power pole. Having never been hit by an airbag, I couldn't figure out what happen till it was over.
As Tam pointed out total concentration, but what is really going on is auto pilot, everything goes to the mid-brain, there is no time to think only to act, & the mid-brian can do this if it has been trained, to do it. The fore Brain is the logic center, & will ask to many questions, but the mid-brain just does, what needs done.
Why we often say you will not rise to the occasion, you will sink to the level of your training.

Billy Beck said...

"The fore Brain is the logic center, & will ask to many questions, but the mid-brain just does, what needs done.
Why we often say you will not rise to the occasion, you will sink to the level of your training."


{nod} I never recalled thinking about the controls in that airplane. It looked like it just happened. It felt like my ass in the seat was driving.

Who is..... Carteach0? said...

I agree with the idea of concentration... and put forth a few points.

The ones we see coming seem to go slow motion because our brain kicks into concentration/high gear. These too are ones we often avoid BECAUSE we see them coming.

The ones that blindside us... fall under our recognition threshhold and we never get into high gear.
Thats also why these so often end up bad. (Ohhhh... Lookit the lights!)

Another point.... the effect is cumulative. The more often we get tossed into high gear, the easier it happens to us, and the more effective we when it does.

Myself, as old as I am, I seem to hit 'high gear' in about less than a heart beat, and it happens more often. Almost seems like an old friend now.

Billy Beck said...

"The ones we see coming seem to go slow motion because our brain kicks into concentration/high gear. These too are ones we often avoid BECAUSE we see them coming.

The ones that blindside us... fall under our recognition threshhold and we never get into high gear."


To me, this tracks pretty well with the bike crash and the airplane ride. I saw the former developing -- although there was nothing I had time to do anything about -- but the latter hit me like a cantaloupe in the side of the head. I was in it before I consciously knew it, and it went by like a blink.

Billy Beck said...

I have to cop to this, though:

"...although there was nothing I had time to do anything about..."

I burned down several valuable brain-cycles in sheer astonishment. I just about could not believe what I was seeing. If I had taken reality for what it was at first glance, I suppose there's a slim chance that I might have popped some kind of maneuver that would have saved the day.

This is true, though, too: eyewitnesses wanted the guy tagged for attempted murder.

"Targets never get to call the shots."

OA said...

"As Tam pointed out total concentration, but what is really going on is auto pilot, everything goes to the mid-brain, there is no time to think only to act, & the mid-brian can do this if it has been trained, to do it. The fore Brain is the logic center, & will ask to many questions, but the mid-brain just does, what needs done."

Aye. Same in sports. Quarterbacks are often complimented with "he thinks well on his feet." Thinks? Hell, he ain't thinkin' at all. Thinking results in aiming, which gets a ball skipped seven yards low and out in front of, or thrown behind the receiver with startling frequency.

Same with batting. Thinking "I bet it'll be a slider" is fine when you've dabbed a foot out of the box, but the 'higher' brain need be shut off by the windup or you'll end up taking one of those "Mantle looks hungover" swings.

kbarrett said...

That slowed time perception happens in real time.

I've been there twice.

During the one in which I was being shot at, I clearly remember thinking that it was taking a damned long time for me to hit the ground.

And yes, you do need to be aware of what is going on long enough for the brain to ramp up to that state.

Less said...

Screw all this discussion...

What I'm finding interesting now is the number of riders that are getting into accidents!

WOW - stay safe ya'll!

Billy Beck said...

I was a lot safer in airplanes than I was on a bike.

It never felt like someone was shooting at me.

Kevin said...

Tam - I'm curious - do you still ride?

kbarrett said...

+1 on that, less.

Most folks let their subconscious drive ... while their conscious mind does important crap like eating a hamburger or talking on a cellphone.

Motorcycles do not get flagged for attention by the subconscious. They are not dangerous ( like other cars ), and they are not unusual ( like pedestrians or bicyclists in traffic ). So people look right at them, and drive right over them.

A lot of us learn the hard way about motorcycle invisibility.

Roberta X said...

"There are only two kinds of motorcyclists: those who have had an accident and those who will have an accident."
It's utterly true. While the MSF course (I'm slow, I took it twice, after my first accident) is all about avoiding bad situations, its even more about risk mitigation. Two wheels ar emore dangerous than four, especially among the four-wheeled.

I get the "slow time" effect when pushed into it by people, rapidly when I realize a situation is imminent, and not at all when surprised. My wreck went totally non-visual once the bike became unstable.

Slow time with people scares me badly, as my evaluative baseline goes very short-term. I have run from guys with guns twice (I was unarmed) and threw a bag of groceries at one when he caught up.

Dustin said...

There already has been a study performed which indicated that the phenomenon WAS in fact a speeding up of brain functions. Through a series of tests on both mice and humans, it was observed that under high stress situations the receptors in the noggin fired faster. Those cool brain scan images glowed with much more intensity. Interestingly, similar results were found when the test subjects smoked pot. Which is why time seems to slow down for many stoners. Or so I've heard

WmEarl said...

Lock the front brake on, wheel stops and the motorcycle and the fellow on it start tumbling, but I can't remember that. The motorcycle lays upon my foot, both elbows are torn in the jacket, seemingly to have slid along the asphalt until friction wore out velocity, but the slide I remember, the tumble I don't. Time is relative the actions I couldn't control didn't matter, so no sense of time spent, the ones I could do something about seemed slower. Almost sixty now, and those three major motorcycle accidents are vivid and the other fifty-nine plus years of school and work are a bit blurry...

unix-jedi said...

Have to disagree that "slowdown" doesn't happen in the moment, while I agree that *if* you remember a stressful event, you can do so with much more clarity.

(I've noticed some people simply cannot remember traumatic events later, other than they happened.)

My most recent example came a few years ago, not long after getting my pilot's license, I was bringing my flight instructor's 172 in on the very small, (3000 x 40) rough runway where I learned. Settled in at 60 knots, mains down, pull back, nose drops, and HOLY SHIT WHAT IS GOING ON.

There was a massive vibration, my feet were kicked off the pedals several times as I was trying to brake (push the pedal for rudder, pivot it forward for brakes). I was scanning everything looking for what had just happened -feet were still being kicked off the pedals, and I slapped up the flaps to get weight on the ground now so the brakes would work.

Brought the plane to a stop - at midfield. So all of that troubleshooting, fighting, everything, was in the space of under 2 seconds before I decided I wanted flaps up, and I wanted the plane stopped (velocity^2, after all). I looked under the dash twice to see the pedals slamming back and forth in that initial 2 or so seconds, among all the other things I was doing. In the meantime, I had about 10 thoughts go through my head as to the problem was. And I still stopped with 1/2 the runway to use...

I've been blindsided in football - one time was hit by a High School All American tackle on the side of my helmet as I was busy trying to sack his quarterback at camp... I turned in a circle about 45 degrees and kept running - I "woke up" 20 yards into the woods. But I didn't have time to know there was a problem.

(The plane issues was due to a worn front gear, the way it's made for Cessnas, and apparently it came down in a pothole, turned to the side, and then was snapping back and forth. The preferred way to deal with that would be to speed up, pick the nose back up and quiece the gear, then drop it again. (That being said, 3000 feet is *not far* in August in the South.))

Cybrludite said...

Concur with it being a side effect of the adrenaline dump. The car wreck I was in a few years ago comes to mind. We were stopped at a light with a car in front of us. I was in the front passenger seat, and the side mirror was lined up such that I could see a bit behind the car. I noticed an Explorer coming up behind us & not slowing. I had time enough to think "He's gonna hit us!" and brace my arm against the dash before the crunch. As we got pushed into the car in front, I was thinking, "Crap, here come the airbags and we've got someone sitting in the middle of the front seat.", followed by, "Huh. Wonder why they didn't go off..." all before we stopped moving. However, I didn't notice the impact reclining (Ok, bending) my seat via inertia.

Gmac said...

Its not so much that time "streches out" in as much as your concentration becomes so much more focused on the event in front of you.

I've had more than my fair share of "Oh shit" moments where making a decision is split milisecond timing and reaction. Determination of the event and decision on how to react happened almost at the same time.

What really bites is when you see it coming and realize there's nothing that can be done to mitigate the outcome.