Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In the Quiet Calm of the Mind

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm painfully self-aware - either from my background in theatre, or my current career in psychology & research, who knows? - and tend to think about and analyze my thoughts, actions, and feelings. This could be a blessing or a curse, and which of the two often depends on what I do with the information.

But occasionally, I stumble across something that makes me think, "Hmm, that's an interesting psychological phenomenon. How can I study that?" I don't always come up with a good study idea right away, but it's something I tuck into my back pocket for later.

Recently, I was nearly in a car accident. There was probably nothing special about this near-miss, but something very interesting hit me - figuratively, of course. I was driving to pick something up at the store, going east, and a car coming from the west hung a left in front of me without looking. I slammed on my breaks, thinking, "Gotta stop, gotta stop." I hit a patch of ice and began to skid. In that moment, I felt a sudden sense of peace, as I very calmly thought, "I'm going to hit him. There's nothing I can do about it. My passenger front will hit his passenger back. This is going to happen."

It wasn't freaking out, it wasn't, "Oh God, my cheap, old car is going to be totaled." Or "I hope this guy has insurance." It was a peaceful acceptance that, "This is going to happen."

I wonder if that happens in other situations. After you've fought like hell to stop whatever from happening, when you realize that your actions are probably not going to make a difference, you quietly accept that "This is how it is." I realized after that this feeling happened to me in another car accident, when a man in front of me braked suddenly and I rear-ended him. I think that's one reason the thud of a car accident sounds so deafening - because it follows that quiet calm. Thankfully, there was no damage to either car - it was a pretty slow rear-ending - and we both thanked the Lord we were okay and went about our business. He even gave me a hug. Nice guy.

Sorry, getting off the subject. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the accident didn't happen. The other car began to slow down - which is bad, because it means he would have stopped right in front of me - but thankfully, sped up and got through the intersection. We missed by mere inches. Perhaps it's because this was a near-miss that I noticed this sensation. If we had collided, the calm would have been followed by, "Thud" and "Well, better call the cops".

It was of course, after the accident didn't happen that my heart began to pound, as I thought, "Crap, that was really close!" That's when the freak-out occurred. But it was short-lived, given nothing really happened.

So what is driving this sensation? (Man, I am full of unintentional puns this evening.) Is it the "death instinct" Freud insists we all have, that at some point, when faced with our unavoidable demise or something like it, we accept or perhaps even welcome it? Is it an evolutionary holdover from our hunter-gatherer days where struggling with the predator/whatever was more likely to get us killed? What could it be?

Pensively yours,


  1. Hi Sara! I love reading your posts! I'm so glad you're okay! I would say that it's just your autonomic nervous system gearing up for the flight reflex...which is actually associated with a couple of seconds of calm. But perhaps it's something more profound - which is the more provocative way to think about it.

    The only similar experience I've had is giving birth -- before both, I freaked out pretty hard core. And then there was a moment with both girls that I had the same realization..."This is going to happen." Maybe not a one-to-one correspondance with what you're discussing...

    Keep up the posting!

  2. I have experienced this same phenomenon, right before eating an entire chocolate cake. There's the struggle, the fear, then the acceptance that this is going to happen, just as you described. Kidding (not really), but I have experienced it, I think a couple of times. I can remember back when I was a kid, falling out of a tall tree. I remember my foot catching, losing my balance, and calmly thinking, "I'm going to fall now."

    On a related note, we kept chickens in KC before we moved, and I noticed something interesting about them. When our horrible bird chaser of a dog would misbehave and chase the chickens, they ran for their lives. They would dart this way and that, traveling up, under, and around any nearby object trying to dodge the dog. When he would catch one, it went limp. Completely, totally limp. It was as though it was in a trance. If I got the dog away from it, the chicken would wake up, and run away. I wonder if the birds can feel any pain when in this state, or if it is a mechanism of mercy. I also wonder if humans have the same capability.