The High-Definition Experience of Scaring Yourself Half to Death

I have a love/hate relationship with those giant water slides, especially the ones that go straight down. The hate side is easy. They’re terrifying. At 46, I’m too old to be up there, teetering on the edge, staring down a steep drop that makes my heart race and my palms sweat. Sitting on the top of the slide, ready to plunge, I question my sanity. What am I doing here? I could be relaxing by the pool, enjoying a cold drink, instead of subjecting myself to this self-inflicted torture.

The love side is more complicated. I have vivid and wonderful memories after the ride. Time seems to slow down right when I start down the water slide. This happens in that split second between “What kind of person would do this?” and “Here I go, I’m going to die. I guess I may as well enjoy it.”

As I shoot down the slide, everything around me becomes a blur, but my mind is crystal clear, capturing every sensation in high definition. The rush of water against my skin, the wind whipping past my face, and the exhilarating feeling of weightlessness all combine to create an unforgettable experience. It’s in these moments that I feel most alive, completely immersed in the present, with every sense heightened.

But did time really slow down? David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, studied this phenomenon and found that our perception of time stretching during terrifying moments is a trick of the brain. Eagleman, inspired by his own childhood experience of falling from a roof, became fascinated by how our brains process time during high-stress situations. He delved into the neuroscience behind this perception, aiming to uncover the mechanisms that make these moments feel elongated. Through his research, he discovered that when we are in danger, our brains work overtime to record every detail, giving us the illusion that time is moving more slowly than it actually is. This intense focus helps us react more effectively, potentially increasing our chances of survival in life-threatening situations.

Eagleman conducted an experiment on time slowing down in amusement park rides. He used the most terrifying ride I’d ever seen, the SCAD (Suspended Catch Air Device). In this experiment, participants free-fell from a 150-foot tower into a net, designed to induce a genuine fear of death. The SCAD diving experience involves being suspended high above the ground, facing upwards, unable to see the net below. Once released, participants plummet in free fall until they are caught safely by the net. To measure their perception of time during the fall, Eagleman equipped them with a device called a perceptual chronometer, which flashed numbers too quickly to be seen under normal conditions. His goal was to determine if the participants could read the numbers if their perception of time slowed down enough.

What Eagleman discovered was that during these intense experiences, our brain records more details, creating a dense and vivid memory. This makes it feel like time is slowing down. However, it turns out that the brain actually makes up the story of what’s happening to us as it’s happening. Oddly enough, the stimuli we think we’re experiencing with our senses are already processed and woven together. You can see this in the flash lag illusion, which shows how where a moving object appears to lag behind its actual position. In reality, our brains are constantly predicting future events to compensate for processing delays, creating a seamless experience that feels instantaneous.

Another fascinating example of this is the rubber hand illusion, where a person feels pain in a fake hand. In this experiment, a participant’s real hand is hidden from view, and a rubber hand is placed in front of them. Both the real and rubber hands are simultaneously stroked with a brush. After a while, the participant begins to feel the touch in the rubber hand. Then, if someone slams a fork or a hammer into the rubber hand, the person feels pain. This is the pain that the brain would normally integrate, to make the feeling of the injury coincide with the sight of the hammer.

My memories of the water parks are the most vivid right as I start going down the slide, right when I think I’m going to die. These are known as flashbulb memories. Flashbulb memories are highly detailed and vivid memories of significant moments, often linked to strong emotions. These memories are so clear and precise because our brains are in a heightened state of awareness during emotionally charged events, capturing every detail. This is why we remember where we were and what we were doing during major events in our lives, such as a natural disaster or a personal achievement. The intense emotions we feel during these moments engrave the memories deeply into our minds.

So, it’s this wonderful sense of being in the world, taking in the beauty and sense of what’s going on around me. It’s not about the fear of dying anymore, but the intense intake of sensory data and building these wonderfully powerful memories. Almost more than the thrill of the experience, it’s the sharpened focus and memory that excite me. With this heightened awareness, I can feel fully alive, not just remembering events but vividly reliving the sensations. By scaring ourselves half to death, we are, in a sense, capturing the beauty of life in higher fidelity than we’d normally capture.

Additional Notes:

My new GPT is awesome! Here’s the prompt: You are here to help complete blog posts. The user will give you the beginning of the paragraphs and you will fill them out, adding transitions when necessary. When asked to check the post for grammar and spelling, make the necessary corrections and bold any changes. Use direct language, avoid flowery language, and stay away from technical jargon. If technical terms must be used, briefly define them in simple terms. Aim for clarity and directness, using short sentences and active voice. When explaining technical concepts, use everyday examples and assume the reader has no background in the subject.