Friday, June 24, 2016

When time stood still

When time stood still

The year was 1972. The place was Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The destination was the drive-in movie theater close to Marist Brothers where I would go to school for a year (Marist Brothers that is, not the drive-in theater) and play Rugby and water polo.   Two sports I was not that great at. Soccer was to be my thing, By the way the school is no longer there but I digress. 

Marist brothers

My stepfather Tom Martin was driving (yes that  means my name was Steve Martin back before the name became famous with a comedian/actor who also does magic).  I was in the passenger seat. My younger brothers David and Barry were in the back seat.

Now Tom had a huge car, it was basically a tank and I am going to guess that most Americans have not heard of the make let alone the model, it was a gray Wolseley. Wolseley was a British Motor Vehicle company that was founded in 1901 by the Vickers armaments. The company was bought by William Morris and became part of that Empire. 

Now I am not really sure which Wolseley we owned but I suspect that it was the Wolseley 6/110 also known as the Wolsely 300 in Denmark, as seen below:

What I do know is that my stepfather once wrecked it into a tree further down the same road as the one in this story at the section where main street intersects the road in this story. He ran head on into a stone wall, backed by dirt and a huge tree. The stone wall was destroyed even though it was backed by dirt and the Wolesley had nary a scratch. At that time there was a farmhouse in the background and the wall was made out of large boulders. Now it appears to be a parking lot. The big trees are still there as can be seen in the picture, plus a nice new yet lower lying brick wall.

The Wolesely was considered as the finest "area car" ever employed by the London Metropolitan Police Force. This car had a top speed of 97.6 miles per hour and 0 to 60 in 14.4 seconds. I mention this speed and the fact it was fitted with drum breaks at the rear and vacuum servo assistance as a side note due to the fact I remember the first week we arrived in Port Elizabeth, after a long train ride from Johannesburg, my stepfather was refitting the Lockheed fitted drum bakes, when he was done he drove it head on towards me at a wall and hit the breaks. To show me "they worked."  Yes I was between the wall and the car and I was scared shitless. But I digress. Let's get back to; "This vehicle was a tank.” 

We made the right off Cape road and headed down what is now known as the William Motley Expressway. Now the Motley Expressway is quite steep as you come down the hill from Newton Park area. As you get further down, it evens out more somewhere between Lily street and Main street. And it is what happened there that I remember and will remember till the day I die.

I can still see it quite plainly. A black man was on the side of the road to the right ahead of us. He looked and started to step on to the road. My stepfather slowed down a bit, the man stepped back on the curb, we sped back up to our regular speed then he just for no reason jumped out in to the middle of the road. It was at that moment that time stood still, or slowed to a very small speed for me. The man hit the front of the car, I could see him slide up the front of the car and fly slow motion up into the air. Our car spun for what seemed like many minutes and we slid to a bumpy stop. I could see him land due to the fact the car had swung 180 degrees around. My youngest brother Barry was in the back seat screaming, “Daddy hit a native, Daddy hit a native.” Keep in mind the context of apartheid at the time. Native was a very nice description of a black man compared to the horrible labels white Afrikana’s gave the black man then. Apartheid was horrific. And at some future time I might write of my experiences of being an English boy in South Africa and not understanding why white Afrikana’s treated black people the way they did. But again, that is a story for another time. This story is about time, and to tell it I need to finish the story.

Time stood still, even opening the door took time. Looking down I thought I was covered in oil, but it was blood looking dark under the amber street light. Slowly I turned, the man was in the road, his leg was hanging off. I remember some neighbors coming over, wrapping his leg in newspapers till the ambulance came. Slowly things started to speed up to the passage of time as we know it. But time had surely almost stopped. Even now I can see his shoe flying over the car as if it hung in the air levitating in slow motion. Time had slowed to a halt during this and time had crept up to its regular speed after we stopped. Now this was not the first time this had happened to me, but it is the one I remember because indeed it was the one time that time as I knew it slowed down the most. And the one time a man may have died. The other times it slowed, but not so I could see every single thing and detail as if one minute was an hour.

To end this story I should say that the man was taken to the hospital. A few weeks later when the police came to the apartment in Kabega Park, we asked about him. It appeared that they had lost track of him. How does that happen? Well during apartheid it tragically happened all the time. Black lives simply did not matter to the white Africana.

This brings me to last week. Last week in Vegas I was driving down a back street called Shelbourne. I stopped at a stop sign. There was a wall to my right and the stop was way too far back from the end of the wall. I could only see a small part down the road. I proceeded to cross Placid Street, because I had been looking mostly to my right I looked to my left, when I looked back to my right there was a blue Pathfinder just yards from me heading at my car full speed. 

Again time slowed, not as much as that first time but enough for my brain to go into overdrive. I knew at that speed he was going to hit the front of my vehicle, and if he did I was going to probably die. So instead of hitting the breaks I hit the gas. He slammed into the side panel between the front passenger and rear passenger doors. The strongest part of my car. Had I not reacted the way I did I would probably not be typing this right now. The pictures do not do justice to the damage on my vehicle. That side was pushed in at least a foot. But here is the interesting thing (other than both of us walking away from the wreck that is), I remember each and every thought that came to me as if it was happening in very slow time, I remember each and every detail, seeing his horrified face as he knew the inevitable was about to happen, seeing his licence plate coming at me and thinking about all those things and seeing him come towards me at first fast then in slow motion, enough to react that fast and make changes that saved my life. In this case, once the collision took place everything immediately went back to regular speed. 

Now I am not the only one who has had this experience, in fact in 1892 in the Yearbook of the Alpine Club geologist Albert Von St Gallen Heim wrote about this in reference to climbers. He stated that 95 percent of climbers who had an accidental fall reported experiences that included,

“A dominant mental quickness and sense of surety. Mental activity became enormous, rising to a 100 fold velocity or intensity. The relationships of events and their probable outcomes were over-viewed with objective clarity. No confusion entered at all. Time became greatly expanded. The individual acted with lightning-quickness in accord with accurate judgment of his situation. (Noyes and Kletti, 1972, pp. 46–47)

Now a hundred fold might seem to be a bit of exaggeration but in my South African experience it certainly did not seem to be out of the realm of possibility.

There seems to be the following phenomena in these moments of extreme immediate danger:

1. A slowing down and expanding of time

2. Acute focusing on a subject

3. An incredible reaction time from the data retrieved from that focusing

4. Increased vision and hearing

5. Dominant mental quickness.

So what causes this and is it a true phenomena? Some recent studies have tried to recreate this phenomena and only succeed to the point that the participants watching others fall at high rates of speed think their time falling was longer. As a result these studies pointed to the passage of time not slowing down but rather there is a perceived overestimation of time, in the one study done by Chess Stetson in 2007 he concluded; “we speculate that the involvement of the amygdala in emotional memory may lead to dilated duration judgments retrospectively, due to a richer, and perhaps secondary encoding of the memories. Upon later readout, such highly salient events may be erroneously interpreted to have spanned a greater period of time. (Stetson et al.

Still other studies ran numbers slightly faster than was tracked by the human eye. In theory the people should have been able to see the numbers if time slowed down. They did not. The experimenters again concluded that time did not stand still for them or slow for them. 

I find issues with most of these studies. In each study, the people knew they were not in any real danger such as during a free fall, and therefor the flight or fight temporal distortion really would not have been stimulated. Maybe, just maybe the human mind is smart enough to know when it should jump ship or not. The scientists should not be so quick to put this phenomena down to “memory effects.”

So what would explain it? Well Valtteri Arstila wrote in his paper the following from (Berridge and Waterhouse, 2003

“To begin with, the mechanism that could account for our experiences during the sudden life-threatening situations needs to fulfill at minimum the following requirements: the mechanism needs to become active in such situations, it needs to activate fast, and it must have wide-ranging effects. The neuronal mechanism that fulfills these requirements is the locus coeruleus norepinephrine system, the main source of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. The first thing to note about it is that it is (in addition to other things) part of a fight-or-flight response that humans and other primates have been postulated to exhibit. This response is triggered by a perception of a fearful and threatening situation, not threatening situations per se, and hence it is likely to play a role in the situations under discussion. Second, the phasic response (brief and high levels of discharge) of locus coeruleus norepinephrine system to highly salient as well as task-relevant stimuli occurs with a short latency of 100–150 ms and actually precedes behavior (Aston-Jones et al., 1994, 1997). Thus such activation is in accord with the fact that many accidents, like car accidents, last only a few seconds during which the effects could occur. Finally, given that noradrenergic neurons originating from locus coeruleus project exceptionally widely in the brain, the entire cerebral cortex for instance receives input from it, and that norepinephrine is one of the main neurotransmitters, it is unsurprising that the effects of released norepinephrine can be dramatic and wide-ranging. ”

All I know is that it is indeed a real phenomenon, perceived or not. I also realized that the older I get the less time stands still. Now we do know the reason for this, or at least they say they do. It seems that as we get older we lay down less memory tracks since we have "been there and done that" so many times there is no reason for our brains and memory to lay down a new track. When one is laying down new tracks, time slows. Time often seems expanded when we focus upon certain tasks. Look at a clock and watch he second hand, it will appear that time has slowed if you concentrate on each and every second movement compared to just sitting back and letting a minute tick by. 

A series of perceptions slows time down for us. Yes this is perceived time and that is what most of thetime we deal with in our lives especially as we get older. But those special moments, those moments where time stands still, wereact fast, we think fast and we are superhuman.. Well maybe it is just real magic and certainly the superpower I would want every day if I could have a superpower.. The power to make time stand still. watch this video to see why :-)

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