I was nervous as I stood near the end of the board. I don’t remember if I had been up there before, but here I was trying to act “big” by climbing the diving board at the Pine Valley Country Club pool in Wilmington, NC. As I looked past my small feet and down into the deep end, it seemed as if I was 20 feet above the water. In reality it was probably more like 6 feet, but since I was 7 or 8, it seemed quite high and a bit scary. As I debated whether or not to jump, I could feel the pressure of the people on the ladder behind me waiting their turn. It felt like the eyes of everyone at the pool that day were on me as well – although I doubt many were watching that little boy on the board except my Mom and maybe my sister. Still trying to make a decision, I backed up to get a running start and as I did my left foot missed the board and stepped out into mid-air. That’s when time stood still. I remember looking at my foot and thinking “that’s not good”, and then feeling my body tumble through the air and land on the concrete below the board – the whole event in slow motion. The next thing I remember is the sharp smell of ammonia as the lifeguard held a capsule of smelling salts under my nose to wake me up.
This phenomenon has happened to me on a few occasions since then. It’s probably happened to you as well. It’s called “slow-motion perception”, and it occurs in life threatening situations. Researchers say time doesn’t really change, of course, but our memories of the events do. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University explains it this way, “Frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories. The more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took.” In his research he hurled himself and several others off a platform 150 feet above a net and found that each subject experienced this “slow-motion” feeling.
I find this kind of brain science fascinating, and it has brought clarity to a number of memories I have in my life. Like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix, time has seemed to slow, and the memory of the event has sharpened. Like when I was in 4th grade riding in the back seat of friend’s car as his mom drove us to school one morning. She hit a wet section of road, and the car spun around several times before landing in the ditch. I always remember that event as if it happened in slow motion as we spun around and around and around. The really “Big One” for me occurred on a rafting trip my sons took me on down the Chattooga River – the same river where they filmed the movie Deliverance. Our raft hit the wall at the bottom of 7 Foot Falls and rolled upwards and over. My youngest son, Graham, about 15 at the time, was on the high side and as he fell towards the water he hit me, full-force, and took me in with him. The next thing I remember was spending quite a bit of time underwater and looking up at the bright lights and reflections from the sky above me. When I finally broke the surface my middle son, Daniel, was there yelling at me with a mixture of fear and concern on his face. As I remember it, he was yelling at me in slow motion – “Arrreee yooouuu oookkaaaay?” I stared at him dumbly but found it difficult to put words together to actually answer him. (You can read more about that incident heeeerrreee – https://itwasonmymind.blog/2015/08/04/our-deliverance/ )
My Granddaddy Bryant had a story from his childhood like this. Running through the woods one day he came to a creek on the trail and jumped, as he had often done, to land on the other side. On this occasion, however, he noticed a large snake sunning himself on the opposite bank – right where he was about to land. He maintained all his life that when he saw that snake he stopped in mid-air and returned to the bank he had just left! A clear and vivid memory for him – probably in slow motion.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m caught in a “slow-motion perception” situation right now. This world-wide pandemic has changed everything, and the things that have become normal were unimaginable just a few months ago. I’ve worked from home for the past 30 days. It takes me 21 steps to go to the bathroom from my upstairs office. Forty-four steps will put me in the “cafeteria” where I’ll dig for something “interesting” to eat before heading back upstairs to jump on my next Zoom meeting. I know it’s really gotten bad because when my wife, who is teaching students online from our kitchen table, yells up the stairs that she’s going to the Post Office to mail a letter, I run down the stairs and jump in the car. Just like our golden retriever used to do, tail wagging, nose out the window, truly excited for a ride to the freaking Post Office! – all in slow-motion, of course.
So how about you? Do you have some “slow-motion perception” memories in your life? Do you remember an incident where you are sure that time stood still or slowed waaaayyy down? If so, click the box below and tell me your story and feel free to share this blog post anywhere you’d like.
For an interesting article and report on this phenomenon check out this NPR report with David Eagleman – https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129112147