“Time Slowed Down” The Shorthand Your Brain Operates in Emergency Scenarios

“Time Slowed Down” The Shorthand Your Brain Operates in Emergency Scenarios

The main premise of this post is that over intellectualisation is the bane of good training and effective self protection because it hampers clear and decisive action.

The mindset you are in when analysing/researching/ forum hopping and youtube surfing for techniques couldnt be further away from the mindset you need to be in when developing the skills or applying them in the street.

The secondary premise relates to the idea that our brains begin functioning in some instrinsically “different” way when we are faced with emergency situations that gives us the experience that “time seemed to slow down”.  One explanation that used to be given was that adrenaline makes your brains functioning “speed up”.

A recent incident whilst working a door in Soho, London made me rethink the whole discourse surrounding this effect.

A group of young people in high spirits came into the club to descend a very steep spiral staircase – at one point a lad jumped up and pretended to kick his friend in the head. He fell. I was 3 metres or so away from the guy as he fell.

My (false) memory of it is that he fell in slow motion giving me enough time to have several distinct and clear thoughts about the situation as it unravelled in about 2 seconds of real time. I also “remember” that one moment I was looking at him and the next I had hold of him stopping him from falling.

In this situation he would have falled, in my estimation at the time, onto the top of his head from a height of 4 metres. This assessment was so strong in me it actually triggered a “trauma” response whereby even an hour after the incident my eyes kept drifting back to the square foot of floor I had imagined his head landing and my brain incessantly played the scenario over and over again.

After I had “caught” him (he was in the process of catching himself by gripping the bannister – I cant say whether he would have stopped himself from rolling over or not) and set him back on his way I had time to analyse the experience.

My brain was telling me “time just slowed down”, but I couldnt quite accept it.

When I analysed it I realised that what had happened is my brain had gone into a very emotionalyl impactful, visceral, physical, primitive “shorthand” that conveyed a simple, clear message to me quickly: “grab him now or he might die”.

Instead of the usual wordy inner dialogue that is akin to what you are talking out loud inside your head now as you read this which gives MORE academic/intellectual information but LESS (or none at all) imperative to take immediate action and takes more time I was thinking in a “short hand” that gave ZERO intellectual information or “backstory” and TOTAL imperative to take action RIGHT NOW.

This did not manifest as complex sentences. Nor as a simple sentence. Not even as a series of pictures with monosyllables. But in NLP terms, fully associated (so I experienced them in “first person”) visual and kinaesthetic injunctions to take very specific action.

In OODA loop terms: my brain in fractions of second went through observation, orientation, decision to action and left me with a directive “get across the space and grab the guy”.

But it didnt communicate in WORDS it was clear bright simple images with the a feeling that felt like I was being pulled/pushed towards that one simple objective.

When we perform a physical task with skill, in sport, martial arts or whatever I think we naturally go back to this more “primal” mode of thought. Immediately associated in the first person and in the present moment.

This is the goal of Zen meditation; to get us back into this body, in this reality, in the moment.

However most of modern culture (including reading blogs!) will take you into other bodies, other realities and other moments. This can be useful. But it can be a damaging habit.

I have noticed and I am concerned with the trend in modern martial arts for western consumer culture to dictate peoples approach to training : adhd, bouncing from concept to concept, “throwaway” if it doesnt work immediately bin it, 2nd person passive observer , endless pontificating conversations about what might work when we could be spending that time FINDING OUT FOR OURSELVES by doing it, and the desire to be spoon fed everything. We really are spoiled for choice now, that doesnt mean we can allow ourselves the indulgence of going into a totally passive consumer state lazily demanding that it all be done for us. In exactly the way we want.

This is not the essence of the character toughening iron willed self discipline inducing training of the Senseis we follow living and dead!

At this rate we can only eventually see (and are already seeing) a slow but certain devolution of skill, character and will.

We need our intellect, we must protect it and nourish it. But dont overuse it. Its good for your mind to get a rest by doing some repetitive (oh no!) and sometimes even boring (heaven forfend!) training that we will only see the benefits of in the long term.

We can also practise getting out of the “wordy”/intellectual side of the brain and start thinking with the heart, thinking with the body, doing less internal talking and more internal and external listening. Just sitting still for a bit and listening to whats going on around you. Putting your conscious awareness back in your body in this present moment. Its very healing and calming. It creates a real space in which some sanity can creep back in.

foot note 1:

From Macolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, chapter four which is about “creating structure for spontaneity”

“There are I think two important lessons here. The first is that truly succesful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking… The second lesson is that in good decision making, frugality matters… overloading the decision makers with information, makes (performing a skilled task) harder, not easier. To be a succesful decision maker, we have to edit.”

Gladwell also references in this section a former Marine called Paul Van Riper who was called out of retirement by the Pentagon in 2000 to play the role of a rogue anti american Commander in a quarter of a billion dollar war game called Millenium Challenge.

“Van Riper didnt believe you could lift the fog of war…. from his own experiences in Vietnam… Van Riper became convinced that war was inherently unpredictable, messy and non linear… It wasnt that Van Riper hated rational analysis. Its that he thought it was inappropriate in the midst of battle, where the uncertainties of war and the pressures of time made it impossible to compare options carefully and calmly… nurses and firefighters would size up a situation immediately and act, drawing on experience and intuition and a rough kind of mental simulation. To Van Riper that seemed to describe much more accurately how people make decisions on the battle field.”

Van Riper’s Rogue Red Team played the “War by the book” Blue Team who obeyed every established principle of military strategy… and gave them a kicking!

“Had Millenium Challenge been a real war instead of just an exercise, twenty thousand American servicemen and women would have been killed before there own army had even fired a shot.”

You cant do violence by numbers, you have to develop an intuitive ability to improvise given the circumstances and then trust it, thats where real confidence comes from.

footnote 2

In chapter 5 Gladwell describes an experiment performed by Psychologist Jonathan Schooler, who came up with the term Verbal Overshadowing
(… if I ask you to remember someones face, you can do it effectively, but if I ask you to describe that face in words your visual memory actually becomes impaired by that process! thats verbal overshadowing)
In the experiment a group of food experts were asked to rank the quality of 24 different jams. Schooler took a group of college students and asked them to rank the jams too. How close was the students ranking to the experts?
“Pretty close” says Gladwell “What this says, in other words, is that our jam reactions are quite good: even those of us who arent jam experts know good jam when we taste it.”

What happened in the experiment when students were given a questionnaire and asked to explain their choices of jam? Total disaster… there was little correlation at all with the experts choice of jam.

“This is reminiscent of Schoolers experiments I described in the Van Riper story (about verbal overshadowing) in which introspection destroyed peoples ability to solve insight problems. By making people think about jam…Schooler turned them into jam idiots.”

footnote 3:    http://gizmodo.com/5940562/time-really-does-seem-to-slow-down-for-athletes

“The research, carried out at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, tested the idea of time dilation prior to motor action using a series of tests. ”

“Dr Nobuhiro Hagura, one of the researchers:

“John McEnroe has reported that he feels time slows down as he is about to hit the ball, and F1 drivers report something very similar when overtaking. Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced. So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower.” ”

footnote 4



“We discovered that people are not like Neo in The Matrix, dodging bullets in slow-mo,” Eagleman said.

Memory trick

“Instead, such time warping seems to be a trick played by one’s memory. When a person is scared, a brain area called the amygdala becomes more active, laying down an extra set of memories that go along with those normally taken care of by other parts of the brain.

“In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories,” Eagleman explained. “And the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took.” “

About The Author

richie grannon

Richard Grannon is a martial arts instructor and psychology coach.


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