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Holten: A real mind slower downer

Have you ever experienced your brain going into slow motion in the midst of chaos? I have. A few times.

I’ve written about it before, but I once hydroplaned while driving a sports car in pouring rain on a Los Angeles freeway at 6:30 a.m., went into a 360-degree spin across six lanes and then smashed backwards into a retaining wall.

A nurse going the other way on the other side of the freeway did the same thing and died.

The point I’m trying to make has little to do with the accident and everything to do with how calm I was in the midst of it all, and how long it took from beginning to end.

Had I thought about it, I could have made a pizza from scratch, taken a shower and been married and divorced twice while I waited for impact. That’s because, in the midst of it all, I sat there calmly watching beams from countless headlights put on a lightshow inside my car as other cars somehow whisked by without smashing into me. Thank God.

I am told that what I experienced is common amongst victims of car crashes. It is this feeling that time seems to slow down. In other words, it was as if time all of a sudden decided to allow me to view everything that was happening in horrifying detail.

That’s why scientists, who insist on knowing the answer to everything, decided to conduct an experiment where they would have people jump off a high platform so that they could study how the brain deals with emergencies, and whether time really does slow down.

What they did was to have participants fall 148 feet backward off a platform at 70 miles per hour for what would amount to about three seconds.

Of course, everyone who did it thought that their fall lasted 36 percent longer than it actually took. So in the second half of the experiment they strapped a watch like device around their wrists that flicked through numbers at a speed that would normally be undecipherable, assuming that if the mind slowed time down or reactions became much quicker, thanks to high doses of adrenaline, that the participants would be able to read the numbers.

Not so, as it turned out.

Instead, none of the participants were able to read the numbers during their fall, and, thus, what they concluded was that a part of the brain called the amygdala becomes more active and lays down extra sets of memories that go along with the actual events.

“In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories,” said Dr. David Eagleman, an assistant professor of neuroscience and psychology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who led the experiment. “And the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took.”

Eagleman also added that this illusion “is related to the phenomenon that time seems to speed up as you grow older. When you’re a child, you lay down rich memories for all your experiences. When you’re older, you’ve seen it all before and lay down fewer memories. Therefore, when a child looks back at the end of a summer, it seems to have lasted forever, while adults think it zoomed by.”

Charles Caleb Colton, the English cleric, writer and collector, well known for his eccentricities once said, “Time is the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things; the past is gone, the future is not come, and the present becomes the past even while we attempt to define it, and, like the flash of lightning, at once exists and expires.”

That’s a little intimidating.

Perhaps Henry Van Dyke, the American author, educator and clergyman said it best when he said, “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”

Apparently love is the key.

Holten is the editor of The Drill and the executive director

of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

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