The idea of one’s life flashing before their eyes always struck me as territory of people with a flair for the dramatic and a fondness for cliches. Lives take place on a continuum with experiences occurring in a linear fashion. Although we can typically think things faster than we can do them (e.g. thinking about making dinner vs actually making dinner), thinking thoughts still takes time. Even a flash takes time — not a long time, but time none the less.
So how could a person manage to visualize an entire life in the time it takes to snap a picture or turn on a light?
Almost five years ago, I conducted an experiment to determine whether or not a Honda Civic and a large-ish hunk of concrete could occupy the same space at the same time. They cannot. Also, the Civic faired quite poorly in the experiment while the chunk-o-concrete bore few signs that it had even taken part. My results fell somewhere in the middle — not totaled, but not walking away unscathed either.
I had fallen asleep … I think the technical term may be “passed out” … but forgot to take the crucial step of being at home in bed first. It wasn’t a long nap, the distance I traveled between exiting the freeway and the concrete block putting a decisive end to my forward progress, took only a few seconds. And the time between being aware that things weren’t right and my sudden stop, was an even shorter period. But in that tiny window of time, more went on in terms of thoughts and sensations that should logically have been able to.
I was jarred out of my sleep when my car thumped over the curb and went off the road. In a way, it was a feeling similar to when I dream I can fly … a simultaneous awareness that it shouldn’t be happening but that it was indeed happening anyway. I knew something bad was happening, but had no idea what it was. It was very dark, I was hurtling through space and I was in my car, but not in control of it.
I didn’t feel the impact as much as I heard it. It was very loud. Also, while they’re both at their best when inflated, a balloon and an airbag have very little in common. Unless a balloon has ever developed super-powers and punched you right in the face as hard as it can before popping at 170 decibels (for perspective, the shot from a .357 magnum is around 165 decibels); because in that case, the balloon is very similar to an airbag.
Maybe my life is boring so my brain took a “been there, done that” approach to deciding what I’d experience. So although I didn’t get the “life flash,” I did have a sensation of time slowing down so I could think and feel way more than is actually possible in around two seconds.
I never thought of it as a flash, though. I suppose that may be reserved for those people whose lives are exciting and fulfilling enough to merit a highlight reel. It’s a hard thing to explain in a way that another person can realistically image it. And calling it a “thought ball” doesn’t completely capture it, but that’s what I came up with because it felt like everything happened at the same moment … like a ball of thoughts and feeling all arriving at once. I guess I could have called it a “thought wad,” but that sounds even worse.
The best comparison I’ve come up with is to think of a book. But rather than the words marching single-file across the page, they’re stacked one on top of the other — all the same words in the same order, but occupying a much smaller space. Now imagine that just by looking at the word-stack, you know the whole story. Suddenly it’s just in your mind, fully formed. That’s kind of what it was like … except way scarier because I was crashing my car, not speed reading a book.