The Jeff Wise Blog

The Moment That Lasts Forever

In an instant, your life changes forever. Your car skids off the road. Your plane clips a wing on landing. A motorcycle runs a red light and heads straight at you. For the rest of your time on earth, the sights, smells, and sounds of that instant will be seared in your memory.

In response to my post “How The Brain Stops Time,” more than 100 readers have written to share their experiences of time dilation in the face of intense danger. A closely related corollary is that terrifying memories are burned indelibly in our minds. Long after every other detail of our lives has melted away into the great sea of forgotten things, these moments remain intensely alive.

Reader Alice from Jupiter, Florida writes:

Crossing a street one evening, my sister’s boyfriend picked me up and threw me “fireman” style over his shoulder. I had an injured ankle I remember ‘whining’ about, so he did this in order to assuage – or humor me. My sister, by the way, was trailing a few feet behind us.

Because my rear end was blocking his view from oncoming traffic, he did not see the car coming at us. I did, however, and clearly remember thinking several thoughts: “a car is coming”;”Ted must see this car coming”; “why isn’t he moving faster”; “if he doesn’t, we’ll be hit”; “Oh God, it’s going to hit us.” What seemed an eternity later, the driver did hit us. (She had been drinking and was going pretty fast, I later learned.) I recall a sensation of slowly flying through air and then nothing – until I woke on the pavement with quite a few broken bones. Ted did not survive.

My sister stated later that it happened so quickly, I simply could not have had time to think all the things I did. I clearly remember these thoughts to this day, and have wondered often how it was possible. Why would the brain would manufacture false memories when recalling a fearful event?

With all due respect, I think that Alice’s sister is wrong. Alice had plenty of time to think all those thoughts as she saw the car speeding toward her. In that moment of lethal danger, her brain was flooded with a hormone, noradrenaline, that heightened her focus and her ability to remember. In particular, it amps up the hippocampus, the region near the amygdala which stores explicit memories.

In an experiment that demonstrated the role of the amygdala in intensifying fear-related memories, psychologist Christa McIntyre of UC Irvine let rats walk into either a dark or a well-lit  chamber. Being nocturnal creatures, most chose the dark chamber, where they received an electrical shock. The shock wasn’t very strong, and apparently didn’t make much of an impression; rats put in the same situation a day later went right back to the dark chamber. When the rats’ amygdalas were chemically stimulated before they were shocked, however, the story was different. This time they remembered the shock so vividly that they shunned the dark room and preferred the light one. “Emotionally arousing events tend to be well‑remembered after a single experience,” says McIntyre, “because they activate the amygdala.”

Strange to say, but while most of us try to avoid stress in the course of our daily lives, it’s the stressful, emotionally intense memories that will live with us the longest. Perhaps that’s why we keep returning to high school and college reunions. Unshielded by experience, adolescents feel pain in a way that middle-aged people never do, an amygdala-twisting cavalcade of angst, love, heartbreak, love, excitement, and despair. But they form indelible memories. Before she died, my grandmother lived in a nursing home with other men and women in their 80s and 90s. Some of them couldn’t tell you what year it was, but their memories of World War II, when they’d been young and alive and frightened, were clear as ever.

It makes sense, from an evolutionary point of view, that we need to remember most vividly the events of high-pressure situations. The “flashbulb memory effect” is nature’s way of making sure that we know what to do if we’re in a similar situation again. These things not only stay in our memory longer, we’re able to recall them in greater detail.

A remarkable example of the effect was shared by an anonymous reader who survived a random high-speed traffic accident:

I was driving through an intersection at about 55 mph on a freeway frontage road. My light had been a steady green. Then suddenly two vehicles ran a red light going just as fast as I was and t-boned my car in the driver side. Even though this all happened in a split second, I remember the make and models of the cars that hit me, how many lanes there were on the road, and what the buildings on the opposite side of the street looked like. More importantly, I remember seeing those cars coming straight at me, looking at the light above me, thinking “wait, my light is green,” then looking back at the cars, then again looking at my light to make sure, again, that it was green. Then the smash — more like a crunching sound– and the two cars spinning around my own. I remember slamming on my brakes and even taking my car out of gear (it was a standard) after I had checked and double checked the color of the light. Before the actual impact, everything froze. Everything had slowed down so much that I was convinced that my car was okay and so was I. I thought I had had enough time to slow down enough that there couldn’t be any real damage done. I climbed out of my window, shocked that my door wouldn’t open. I was stunned to see that two of the three cars involved were totaled, including my own. It wasn’t until I climbed out of my car that I snapped back to reality. My car crumpled up like a paper cup.

I suppose what’s significant is how strikingly clear I remember the time lag some six years later.

Have you ever been through an experience that you can later remember in vivid detail, even years later? Was it accompanied by intense emotion, whether of fear or something else such as love, rage, or dejection? If so, I invite you to share it in the comments section. Likewise, if you have any questions about the phenomenon, I’ll do my best to answer them there or in a later post.

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Filed under: Mastering Fear

25 Responses

  1. Jason Denniston says:

    I’m sure you get a lot of comments about people in car wrecks, but my buddies and I were sitting around a campfire several years ago talking about this same thing. What if we could somehow tap into this adrenaline running reaction that our body uses to slow our minds down so that we could react faster or so we could remember that moment better. I too used the same analogy with Matrix to explain my experience when I got into a car wreck at 70mph. There was a car waiting to turn across the highway when the car behind them wasn’t paying attention and rear-ended the van. In turn, it came into my lane since it’s wheels were already turned that way. I saw shrapnel fly from the rear-end of the van in SLOW MOTION. The van moved in slow motion, my hands moved in slow motion when they were turning the wheel to avoid a head on collision. It felt like bumper cars at the moment of impact, I’m sure it was much more violent than this considering the damage done to my vehicle. However, time wound back up to normal whenever I realized what had happened in my cabin of my truck – maybe our means for time travel is all in our heads after all? Or maybe, we can use our bodies to naturally allow us to endure the g-forces that would be necessary to travel through time…who knows. I’ll tell you one thing, Bruce Lee may have been able to tap into this adrenaline time drug as fast as that cat was!!!

  2. Jeff Wise says:

    Thanks, Jason, that’s an incredible story.
    Jeff

  3. Kyle says:

    I was in a motorcycle wreck on July 17, 2010. I was driving home at 11 P.M. when a deer jumped out of the corn field along the road. It only took a split second to happen…but time seemed to crawl. I remember seeing the head of the doe poke out of the stalks of corn, seeing the deer jump and land in my lane, and the shoulder being illuminated by my headlight. I didn’t even have time to apply pressure to the brakes. Once I made contact with the deer, I remember feeling the bike “death wobble” under me, finally lay down, and start sliding. I tried to hang on as long as I could, but gravity pulled me off the side of the bike. As I slid, I remember watching the bike sliding ahead of me throwing off sparks. I can remember every thought that went flashing through my head including: “Wow, my back is really hot! and “I am SOOO thankful for parents that taught me to wear a helmet when I ride!” What took mere seconds felt like hours! It still feels like it was yesterday and I can recall all the events in vivid detail! It is definitely something I will NEVER forget!

  4. mekenna says:

    i got in a car accident back in february. i was driving home from the doctors office after being told i needed meds for my sinus infection. the road i was on was randomly drifted with deep snow, so i was driving very slowly. i started cresting the hill that was in front of the road i lived on, when i hit a very deep snow drift.
    i actually don’t remember everything. but as soon as i hit the drift everything became very slow, and dark. i went into the oncoming lane as an suv was driving towards me. right before i hit the suv head-on i went unconscious, but still felt the painful impact.
    upon awakening everything was veryyy slow and silent. it almost seemed like a picture.

  5. Chris Nautics says:

    Actually, I have experienced the slowly down of time during a fearful event. The first time I was in a car accident, I was the driver, and I had been sleep deprived and I made a bad choice, turned into the path of a truck. Time seem to take a long time to go by as I saw the truck, it hit me, and I survived the crash, unscathed.

    The second time, I was mugged, and as I was being kicked and hit, time slowed down. The intensity of the moment was incredible, and I didn’t feel any pain while it was happening – that came later. No doubt people who do court death by doing dangerous things feel this same intensity.

    I always thought it was the adrenalin kicking in, making the heart and brain think faster, in order to fight or flight. Over the years I have met adrenaline junkies, people who do dangerous things both physical and emotional, and put it down as an addiction. Then I met women who were cutters, who would use razor blades to cut themselves, to feel something. They seem to either have no feeling, or too much feeling. Their adrenaline brain system was messed up big time. These women also sought dangerous sexual situations, again their brains were not addicted to sex as much as the thrill of it.

    My question is the thrill addiction just a way of achieving this intense state of feeling, that makes one feel more alive?

  6. Anna says:

    I have two.

    I had a near drowning experience when I was twelve. I was trying to put a canoe in a river and I didn’t realize how deep the water actually was and I feel off a drop off. It was very fast water and I got stuck in the current. I remember holding onto the string on the canoe, hoping I could pull myself on land. I remember the camp counselor standing on one side of the river and another counselor standing at the edge of the boat. There were a bunch of kids sort of watching. I remember deliberately deciding to let go of the boat and stop trying to swim because it wasn’t working and I got washed up on the opposite side of the shore. I was wearing an orange sweatshirt, I remember. And one of the camp counselors came over to me and hugged me and I cried.

    And then when I was fourteen, I was molested. The strange thing about that is that I remember the several moments in which that happened vividly. (Probably TMI.) I remember the assailant’s facial expression, how I was laying on my back beneath him. Pretty much every single detail and EXACTLY what I said to try to stop him. I remember what I was wearing and what day it happened on. I barely remember the hours after that, though. I don’t really remember anything between when it happened and when I was finally out of his presence. After that, I remember everything. I remember calling my best friend and freaking out and that I deliberately slept in the basement–same room it happened in–instead of my room because I couldn’t detach myself from the moment. I remember, the same friend and I, going to coffee the next day and me pleading her not to mention it to my mom. I remember the awkward conversations I had with other friends and the assailant the day after. I remember who I babysat for the second day after and what I did with the kids. I also remember who I hung out with the second day after, and what we did and how I told her that I was having a hard time with the assailant, who was my boyfriend, and that I assured her we were going to be okay and how I didn’t tell her any details. It’s so strange to have so many memories associated with this.

  7. Juan Pablo says:

    Hi. I read your document on “how brain stops time”, and then this one and im very interstead inthe effect your writing about. I have expierenced it many times and it never stops to amaze me.
    I have a question. ¿Is this strange perception of time that fear unleashes the same we expierence when we are bored (time goes slow). Or when we are having fun or occupied (time goes fast, opposite effect of the same phenomenon)?
    Also i have some questions about the experiment you discribe in “how brain stops time”. ¿Did you use the same test subjects in the two phases of your experiment? The fear is much stronger in the first jump (many times i have skydived, bungee jump and jump from a 30 m cliff to the sea). The hardest jump is the first one, the following you know what to expect.
    Good day!

  8. […] of extreme emotional intensity can trigger indelibly vivid memories. I cited the case of a reader, Alice from Jupiter, who wrote that she could clearly recall a number of thoughts racing through her head as a fatal […]

  9. D says:

    When I was about 6 my sister convinced me to go off of the high dive into the water at the pool. It was a 12 foot board into a 25 foot depth. I can remember the amount of rungs on the ladder (24 the 5th one was broken) I climbed to the top and I saw 3 umbrellas with alternating blue and white stripes. The only dive I knew at the time was the pencil, so after what seemed like at least 10mins (I am told it was closer to 10seconds) I jumped into the pool, as I sank deeper I remember thinking “I can never swim back to the top I am dropping like a rock” the instant after I thought that the bubbles around me stopped moving, and I could see the 10 kids in line watching for me to come up, but no one was moving, my arms didn’t respond and all I could think was “I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead.” as the world started to go back another explosion of non-moving bubbles hit me. Once I had been revived by the lifeguard I was told that the whole event took place over the course of a minute or so.

    I can tell you

  10. Mike says:

    I had this happen with a skiing accident. I was night skiing and made the decision to veer a little bit off the trail. I suddenly felt myself flying headfirst. In the 2 seconds that it took for me to crash I remember every detail. I had already processed that there was a boundary rope buried in the snow because I felt the rope burn on my shins. I remember my skis popping out of their bindings and my ski boots hitting the back of my helmet as I landed face first in the snow. I even remember thinking to myself, why the heck did I decide to go this way. The impact knocked the wind out of me and I couldn’t breath for what seemed like minutes. It was probably only a few seconds. During the whole ordeal there was no sensation of pain. That came once I realized that I wasn’t going to die.

  11. Kevin says:

    Mine was also a car accident. A car turned left on a red turn arrow right in front of me. I was going 45 and T-Boned the car. I remember thinking many things and logically thinking: Turn left? No other cars are coming, go straight? No, concrete in the center that I will hit, Turn right? Yes, best option even though I will certainly hit the car…. This was slow but when I hit the car everything slowed down to a snail’s pace. I remember watching the Air-bag inflate. I watched as violent ripples that normally inflate an airbag in a fraction of a second, took forever to flow across the surface of the bag as it wobbled back and forth like a slow pendulum. When there was finally enough gas in the bag to have it fully inflated, BOOM!!! everything was back to normal time and I was steering my vehicle to the curb. There was that deadened sound you have just after a large bang and I couldn’t tell if it was from the impact or the air-bag blowing up in my face. Probably both… but I will never forget what an air-bag looks like as it is inflating. That thing that happens in less than a blink of an eye was a several minute production for me to watch and study.

  12. […] UPDATE 2: For more on intense fear affects memory, see my new post, “The Moment That Lasts Forever.” […]

  13. C says:

    I totaled my pickup on May 3, 2010. I’m horrible with dates and times but I’ll always remember 10:45 am on May 3rd. I had cram studied for the previous three days and had worked night shifts at the same time and that morning I took my final exam. As I left school and drove home using the interstate that lead to another long road the monotony put me to sleep. My truck had wandered into the right hand lane when I fell asleep and the burgundy sedan next to me honked his horn and I over corrected left to avoid hitting him, causing me to drop my left tires into the soft median and get pulled into the grass. My truck rolled 4 times and the entire time it was in slow motion. At first I was still asleep but the guy honked and I remember thinking ‘What? I’m not that close to him, why is he honking at me?’ but I over corrected and immediately began to flip and all I could think was ‘Oh my god, am I really having a car accident right now? Did I really just do that? This has to be a dream, I must be sleeping right now.’ and I felt almost bodily detached from what was happening at that moment. Then on the final roll time sped up and became aware that I was being jerked from side to side like a violent roller coaster and when I stopped I was upside down, both hands still on the wheel and in general shock not feeling my injuries.

  14. Rachael H. says:

    My slow motion experience happened while I was snowboarding around age 12 or 13. I was a novice snowboarder trying out new things in the terrain park. My friends had pressured me to try going off of a jump that I had never attempted before. I was pretty shaky and nervous, but being a reckless kid I did it anyway. I suddenly became so scared about flying through the air right before I launched. As I went off of the jump, I clearly remember time slowing down, allowing me to turn my head in a complete 180 degrees. I remember how breathtaking the mountain scenery looked around me. Turning my head to look at the view seemed to be the slowest thing in the world. I had somewhat of an out of body experience because my vision didn’t seem to correspond with my body. It felt like it took me a whole 30 seconds to land when it probably only took a few seconds. I crashed when I landed and tumbled through the snow afterwards but for the most part walked away unharmed.

  15. Sunny says:

    I have two experiences to share: one was 10 years ago, and one was a few weeks ago.

    The older one: my brand new car was parked in front of the house and I heard a very loud screeching of brakes so I ran to the window and watched another car hit mine and flip onto the sidewalk, I can still see this in my mind in extreme slow motion exactly as it seemed the moment I saw it, and I remember it in vivid details.

    My most recent experience is of my husband coming home drunk and on drugs, in a rage and searching for me in the house to hurt me, I remember very strange details, sights, sounds, smells and weird thoughts as if I was watching this happen in a movie. As soon as I got over the initial shock I grabbed a phone to call my parents while fighting him for my life, then locked him up in a room, got dressed, snatched my car keys, and ran out of the house, got into my car, drove for some distance to be safe, then stopped and called my parents again on my way to them. I thought my ordeal must’ve lasted at least 10-15 minutes, but my parents say that between my first and second calls to them there were only 4 minutes!

    • Jeff Wise says:

      I’m glad you were able to escape! Please, take care — extricating from a dangerous abusive relationship is much more difficult than just physically removing yourself.
      Jeff

  16. anonymous says:

    “Have you ever been through an experience that you can later remember in vivid detail, even years later?”

    I followed your link here from How the Brain Stops Time to this story, and it made me think of an event by which my family actually divides my our lives in a before-after kind of way.

    In 1982 I was in a bad car accident with my mother and grandmother. Mom was badly injured and trapped in her seat, and nearly died in the car with us while waiting for help to arrive.

    I remember more details from that day and that trip than any other time. In fact, it turns out that I remember it better than my uncle, who was an adult at the time. He corrected a detail about the sequence of events in the blog post I wrote about the accident. In checking with Mom later, I learned that he was wrong and I was right, but I’m not correcting him in the blog because it’ll embarrass him.

    I remember odd things from that day, things that normally wouldn’t stick with me, like the visual of the backs of Mom and Grandma’s seats and their hair seen from the position of laying down in the back seat of the car, what the seats in the kids’ hospital were like, and that the doctor who checked me out had brown hair and was thin, and he made me look at his pen light.

    Anyway, the second effect was the experience of time. I could swear I remembered that it was something like half an hour before an ambulance arrived to help, but my Grandma always told me it was only a few minutes, less than ten, and she must have been right, because Mom didn’t even suffer any brain damage. Unfortunately, Mom has no way of measuring that time, and had passed out for part of it. Grandma is gone, so I’m the only witness left, and I have no confirmation for that part of the experience.

    The blog post with my telling of the event is at http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474977693563

  17. A says:

    Ok so while I dont have any clear fearful memory’s in which time slowed every morning when I wake up I have severe time dilation. My alarm will go off at say 7:15. Ill roll over and close my eyes but not fall asleep, then once i have felt like it has been ten or so minutes Ill look back at my clock- only to see that 1-2 minutes has passed, yet in this time I have definitely processed thought at a faster speed. Im wondering if I am somehow catching my brain in a dream like state and because dreams that seem hours like take a few seconds when my brain is transitioning it causes a time dilation?

  18. mario says:

    I also experienced it in more occasions. here are 2 of them.
    First one is when i was running on the city pool, a friend chased me… Suddenly i slipped and fell down on my back to hit my back-head and lose conscience.. I remember that while i was in the air, i looked right and two people were sitting on a wall and looking towards me and laughing cause i was falling down, then i looked to the other side across the swimming pool just to notice that nobody has seen me falling yet, what was weird, that was my thought in the moment. I regained conscience in 2 minutes but it felt like a 10-15. Also there were the voices that i heard while it was all dark, and while i was regaining conscience they became more clear and clear to me… So when i woke up, i saw that there was 10 or 15 people standing above me and watching me.. This was 13 years ago! Weird….

    Second one was summer ago, when me, my cousin and his girlfriend were heading back from a barbecue.. I was driving the old Volkswagen golf GTI and still, i can remember exact details about the accident. In a right turn, car loosed grip and was heading straight to the hill, at 80mph i tried to steer it in other direction, just to lose control over the car. I remember a big pickup truck heading straight at us, but i managed to steer it right again and avoid hitting other car. We were sliding down the road, and slided to the dirt part of the road, behind what was a big deep hole and a village 100 meters down. When we reached the dirt part, a car turned over it’s roof without touching ground 1 time, my cousin cracked the side window with his head, and his girlfriend flew from the back seat and smashed the mirror above the radio with her back.. I was wearing a seatbelt. And if we slided 2-3 meters more, we would have fall down into 100 meters deep valley and probably wouldn’t survived.. Only my cousin had wound cause of the glass. Nothing else. Pure luck. And it all felt like it was happening for 30 minutes, but it didn’t take more than 10 seconds..

  19. Ninja says:

    I disagree with your findings, because your not taking into account that the individuals may or may not be instinctively reliant individuals who are capable to physically and consciously react and respond to the tests required to attain real data. Your data is corrupt with what seems to be rushed and unfound info; and overlooking data which is relevant to its accurate finalization. Acquire persons who have a deep understanding in their personal reactive instincts and I am more than positive that your results will change and that genuine slowed REACTIVE responses are only achieved by those who have this understanding. A mind capable is only a mind capable. <if you cant make sense outta what I'm saying then you don't deserve to be in your fields of study, which is study. Capable does not define ability, just a set standard by which capable is defined in its circumstance. Get it right and quit bragging about useless and excessive information. I bet your the guy who is in the accident, not the guy avoiding it. We are only restrained by our minds ability to be more than what the standard is. Your standard is low and insulting to the human race and your work is a defining attribute for the people who feel they cant be reactive in a situation, but that their constrained by the destiny in which their entangled, results being good or bad. When in reality, we do only what we believe to be true and not what is defined by the masses as commonly accepted knowledge. Time may not slow down, but our willingness to be responsive to the situation is the decision of those up to the task. You have a great day and hopefully you will correct this flaw in your pearl.

    • Curt.inthehat says:

      ninja, you’re the rush limba of blogs… you have a whole lot to say and you make it sound like it makes sense, but you have no idea what you’re talking about.
      I ‘ve also got one.
      I was riding passenger in a 90 mile an hour car accident no belt 6 days after severe head trauma (jumped, got my head stomped by 10 guys at a bus stop).10 seconds before the crash, my drunk friend was telling me about how his car (one of those little VWs that looks like a geo-metro)ran like a V6 since he put a turbo in it. the speedometer said 120 when the white explorer going the opposite way took a left into our lane perpendicular to our car and stopped in the middle of the road. about 50 ft roughly from impact, he cusses and slams on the brakes; they lock, he cusses more. meanwhile im reaching for the door handle. I remember the #9 italian night-club sandwich particles flying from my mouth as i yelled obscenities. I remember the moment we hit very clearly: The airbag opened as the front end of the car was shaved away like cheese and i put my left hand up. My body went completely rigid and i bounced back and forth between the seat and the airbag too many times to count. I reacted so quickly that i opened the door and jumped out while our car was bouncing backwards. Before i landed, i not only saw the car come to a screeching halt, but grabbed both of my arms and legs followed by my face. Then, acting out of adrenal response, i ran (the cops came and thought i did it, wouldn’t pull out my paperwork from my wallet that said my age, name, and that i was previously concussed, and beat my ass. That was the worst week of my life.) 8 days after that, i went in to get an MRI for the head trauma from getting jumped (Btw When i got jumped, i distinctly remember the designs in the bottoms of the shoes that stomped on my head getting closer to my face) The doctor said that i was bleeding into my brain case for a little over a week, meaning that I should be dead, but i did something right i guess.
      Oh and the only injuries from the crash were sore knees and 3 bruised fingernails on my left hand.
      like i said, ninja you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  20. =Adolphsson says:

    Remind me to read a lot of advanced math formulas next time I’m in the middle of a car accident.😉

  21. Nick says:

    You’re kind of a jerk, ninja. It appears as though many people can relate to this and those who study their own reactions to things are more apt to being objective in their descriptions, thus altering the story. Quit being such a know-it-all and putting down other people. The writing may contain flaws, but your personality can’t be edited for what is wrong with IT. Grow up.

  22. […] UPDATE: For more on intense fear affects memory, see my new post,“The Moment That Lasts Forever.” […]

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise

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