I (Sorta) Wonder What It’d Be Like…

 

  Brother was riding his bike recently, came upon an unexpected obstruction, went over the handlebars, and fractured his wrist.  His recollection of the event was interesting.  “It was all in slow motion.  I remember the sound pattern made by my helmet on the sidewalk.”

  Perfect timing.  Maybe not for him, but for us.  In the April 25 edition of the New Yorker, there’s an article about scientist David Eaglemen whose research seeks to understand our perception of time.  He was drawn to that study by the experience of falling off a roof as a child.  “In life threatening situations, time seems to slow down.  It’s a moment of absolute calm and eerie mental acuity.”

  Why?  Well, it seems that it’s a matter of how much information is on the way to the brain and how it coordinates.  By way of example, light travels faster than sound, but they use a starting pistol in the Olympics instead of a light flash because the brain reacts more quickly to sound.  Cavemen would have been well advised to flee a rustling of the brush long before a predator presented itself visually.

  The more stimulating and/or serious a situation, the more input sent to our accreted cerebral “hodgepodge of systems”.  One component, the amygdala, is sort of an emotional node and seems to become hyperactive when scared and records far more detail than when bored. 

  As a result, one’s experience of the passage of time is vivid and slows significantly.  During an experiment, subjects terrified by a uniquely “plausibly deadly” amusement park ride overestimated the passage of time by thirty-six percent.

  Ok.  What event would put one most in extremis… would push the phenomena the furthest?  Having your head cut off comes most immediately to my mind, but to be honest I have to admit that not an original thought.    

  From the perspective first of a caveman finding his neck in the jaws of a saber toothed tiger, through the likes of John the Baptist, Anne Boleyn, and Marie Antoinette, writer Robert Olin Butler wrote a book entitled Severance in which he presents sixty-two different takes of what the experience of decapitation might be like.

  He begins with these two epigrams to set tone and style:  “After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation.” (Attributed to a Dr. Dassy D’Estaing 1883) And: “In heightened state of emotion people speak at the rate of 160 words a minute.”  The math works out to about 240 words for that ninety seconds and is thus the length of each of the stories.

  Sweet précis, eh?  Mull that around a bit.  Would you be dizzy if your head rolled? Would it feel claustrophobic if your noggin fell into a basket?  Would you be able to close your eyelids?  Would you if you could?

  Courtesy of Mr. Butler, here’re the last 240 words that came to the mind of Ta Chin, a Chinese wife beheaded by her husband in 1838:

“straight and whole are my feet I would rise and run as I have loved for many winkings of the moon to run with my brothers but I press my feet side by side and wiggle my toes this last time and whisper to them goodbye I know what is before me my mother in the courtyard singing prayers to Kuan Yin the goddess of mercy, not to spare me a life of pain but to wither my feet to perfection, the mercy of the golden lotus, the mercy of a wealthy man to keep me, I tremble I am ready to weep but for these tiny stones of anger Kuan Yin has placed in the corners of my eyes even as the footbinder puts the soaking tub before me that first night even as my husband trembles before me in the torch light trembling always from the opium but this night he trembles from what he believes about the brushing of my sleeve by a man he himself brought to our house and my mother sings and my toes are seized and folded hard under and the wrappings wind and wind and squeeze and my arch cracks and I see Buddha in heaven sitting on his lotus but it is my naked foot the golden lotus he sits upon and hands push me down my neck made bare and I cry please, before my head cut off my feet

  Think I’d try to think of the Marx Brothers.  Or maybe Mel Brooks.  Ya, that’s it – Young Frankenstein.

*New Yorker, April 25, 2011, “The Possibilian” by Burkhard Bilger

**Sculpture above?  It’s Woman With Her Throat Cut by Alberto Giacometti.

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