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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