December 22, 2007

From Tom Quinn Kumpf:

Re: Why we feel “slow motion” during crisis (Dec. 11): As a veteran of Vietnam, a martial artist, and a photojournalist who has been in threatening situations more than a few times, I must say that I believe the researchers of why we feel slow motion during crisis are far too simplistic in their conclusions.

While I have “memories” of slow motion during rocket attacks and fire fights in places like Vietnam, Somalia, and Belfast, I “know” that I “experienced” slow motion during such incidents. What I also know is that those “experiences” were not a slowing down of time, but a speeding up (or extreme heightening) of whatever senses I needed to survive at that particular moment in time. In those situations, and once when a guy collided with my van causing it to roll over, my sense of sight sped up so that I saw things happening around me in slow motion, while my brain completely shut down my hearing and sense of smell. Shortly after the danger had passed, I could smell spent explosives and gasoline and hear people shouting around me (and how strange it was that my radio suddenly came back on after I knew the van had finished rolling).

I think the researches would have served themselves much better had they spent their time interviewing people who have experienced “real” crisis situations. Jumping backwards off a high tower may be scary (I wouldn’t have been able to do it) but that kind of experience is exactly as they described it, “safe but harrowing.” I would liken it to martial arts tournament play. There too I have experienced a slowing of motion when someone is throwing a strike or kick my way, but the slowing down of motion is nothing like what you experience during combat or a sudden car crash. I knew, as did the volunteers, that chances of actually be hurt or killed were slim to none. The play, like the jumping, was controlled at all levels, even if you didn’t know where the next strike was coming from. You’d get “pumped” but the senses do more radical things when the world is blowing up or flying by uncontrollably, especially when you know other people are dying around you.

Likewise regarding the phenomenon of time speeding up as we get older. My experiences have always supported the expression “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Memories might in fact affect perception, but so too perception surely affects memory. To put all your focus on memory (shoe, shoe, flower, shoe?} cancels the most important aspect of remembering; the experience. My summers seemed to have lasted forever only when I was bored or not enjoying myself. Then as now (at age sixty) everything slows down when circumstances are bad (recently living through an “eternal” ten-hour flight delay) and seem to fly by when circumstances are enjoyable. Not the other way around.

In any event, thanks for producing such a great newsletter. Although I may sometimes disagree with what I find there, the reports and articles are always interesting and informative.


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