Amanda Ripley

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Postcards from the Senate

17th Mar 2009 posted in General

I did a presentation for a group of Senate staffers yesterday on the Hill, and as usual with these things, the best part (for me) was at the end—when people came up to tell me their own stories. I keep waiting to give one speech in which this does not happen—or in which the things people tell me are not surprising and compelling and new in some way. But it hasn’t happened.

Anyway, one woman told me that when she was in a major earthquake years ago, time had “slowed down” for her—as it does for so many people in life-or-death situations. She was able to use this distortion to her advantage; as she felt the car whipping back and forth and realized what was happening, she calmly assessed the height of the buildings and the probability of their collapse. Then she steered her car into the middle of the road and parked it there—at the farthest point from the buildings—to keep herself safe.

Another example of how the brain is helping you by manipulating your perception. This is happening all the time, but it is most obvious when we are under extreme duress. In a study of police officers involved in shootings, more than half reported experiencing this distortion. Time distortion is so common that scientists have a name for it: tachypsychia, derived from the Greek for “speed of the mind.” Which is not to say scientists really understand it.