Time Stands Still

Nick Brown
3 min read
Share ::
George Berkeley (the philosopher, not the basketball player) suggested that one’s perception of time is relative to the number of thoughts one can squeeze into it. That makes sense, in a way, but there’s another side to the equation.

Twenty years ago, I was driving my Ford Pinto over the railroad tracks on Lead, coming down the incline at about 40mph toward a green light at 2nd Street. When I was about 20 feet away, a truck pulled into the middle of the intersection and stopped, the driver most likely wondering if he should back up or something. I stomped on the breaks… and time almost stopped… though my car kept creeping inevitably toward it’s point of impact. It was a car smash. No one was hurt and the truck sped off. It left me carless but also with a precious memory of time slowing down to a crawl.

People have generally accepted that the apparent slowing down of time is an effect of adrenaline winding us up for battle when we’re in danger. That seems reasonable. So, what’s the missing side of Berkeley’s hypothesis?

Memory. A recent study suggests that time doesn’t really seem to slow down for people when they’re in danger,
they only remember it that way. The brain takes down an extra layer of memories, but perception itself is unaffected during crisis.

Here’s one last anecdote that runs contrary to everything above. About 30 years ago, I was cliff climbing in
Guaje Canyon with some friends and, being kind of a coward, picked a route up the cliff that seemed easier to me than the one my friends were climbing. It was easier, too, as I recall, until I was about 20 feet from the top (notice how it’s always 20 feet in my stupid stories, a nice round number) and the cliff became utterly impassable. There wasn’t a single handhold to be seen, my toes were barely supported and the only thing keeping me from toppling backward to my death many feet below was a small pine seedling growing from a crack in the cliff face. When the seedling started pulling out, I knew I was about to die doing something I didn’t even enjoy. Fuck rock climbing, I hate rock climbing. My friends were looking down at me from the top of the cliff. “What the fuck are you doing there ?”

I don’t know what happened next. The next thing I recall was standing at the top of the cliff shaking uncontrollably, and I kept shaking for a long time after. As near as I can tell, one of two things happened: either my adrenaline kicked in so hard that I managed to scamper up the cliff like a lizard… or I’m still there, clutching at that pine sapling, making this all up in my head before I go whirling off into the air.
1 2 3 746