December 22, 2007

From Fred Colbourne :

Re: Why we feel “slow motion” during crisis (Dec. 11): “People are not like Neo in The Matrix, dodging bullets in slow motion.”

Well, I’m not convinced by this experiment and I’ll tell you why. In 1970, I was working for the UN in Central America. One evening, I was invited to a fiesta some distance from the capital city. We arrived just after dark and my hosts got out of the car and walked off into the night. I followed the sounds of their footsteps and soon saw a slit of light as a door opened and they entered. When I got to the door, I pushed and walked in. It was dark in the hallway, so dark I could not see what was pressed up against my chest and lower face. But I could smell the machine oil and feel the barrel of a submachine gun pressing on my upper lip.

Time seemed to stand still and I looked to my left down a long hallway where a woman stood holding a small child in her arms. I remember thinking, well it may not be as bad as it seems if that woman is this man’s wife. I said: Es su nino alla? I had only a couple of weeks lessons in Spanish and had been in the country only a matter of weeks. So I really don’t know what part of my brain generated these words in what could only have been only an instant. He said, “Si, pasen adelante” and introduced me to his wife and child. Then, assuming I was an arms supplier, he thanked me for the weapons that lined the walls of his storeroom and took me on a tour of the place. He switched on the lights in the entrance hall where I read, “Guardia Civile” in huge letters over the inner doorway, flanked by photos of local guardia and their foreign trainers together with Nazi regalia, just like the Boys from Brazil. But this was not Brazil and I was not the CIA man he thought I was. Turned out my hosts were national police, organizers of death squads. And they were mighty sore that one of their own was stupid enough to bring in a foreigner who might blab about what he saw.

What I remember most was time standing still in that moment of crisis when my brain seemed to pull together what I needed to “dodge the bullets”. So I am skeptical when I read of an experiment that concludes the sense of slow motion in a crisis is merely an illusion. Something happens, but this experiment has not captured the phenomenon.

Fred Colbourne


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