The fact that pain is a necessary part of life is one of those hard lessons we all learn growing up. But then, at some point, you break a bone or have some other sudden injury and realize, wait a second. This barely hurts. In those moments of shock and trauma your brain flips off pain like a switch.
Ask somebody like Amy Racina, who fell off a cliff, landing six stories below, shattering her knee and breaking her hip. Not feeling more than minor pain, even with broken bone jutting out from her skin, she dragged herself until she found help. It was only at the point when she was being loaded safely into a helicopter that the pain returned.
The phenomenon called runner's high is similar. At the point where exertion should have your whole body screaming for mercy, a sense of painless calm washes over the runner, it's almost like being drugged.
Why Can't We Do This All of the Time?
Welcome to the wonderful world of endorphins. The very name of this miracle substance means "morphine produced naturally in the body." It's the ultimate feel-good substance. It's released into the body during exercise, excitement and orgasm, and it has the power to dull or completely eliminate pain by coating the receiving end of the synapses in the brain that would otherwise receive pain signals from the rest of your body.
Yep. That's what it feels like.
So why is your body so stingy with the endorphins? Why can't you just flip this on and leave it on? Well ask anybody with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain, a genetic disorder that leaves them in this painless state all the time. The parents of one such girl saw her on different occasions accidentally chew off part of her own tongue, absent-mindedly bite through her finger and drink scalding liquids.
For every one time pain annoys you, there are about a hundred times it saves you from disfiguring yourself.
You're probably tempted to say, "But why doesn't my brain let me decide? Give me control of the endorphin switch! I won't use it to try to win a bar bet by eating glass!" but deep down, you know damned well you would.
Quite simply, "bullet time" is real. Talk to people who have been in combat, or other life-or-death situations and they'll talk about time stretching out like taffy.
There was a study of police officers involved in shootouts and other "holy shit" moments. One guy was quoted as saying, "During a violent shoot-out I looked over, drawn to the sudden mayhem, and was puzzled to see beer cans slowly floating through the air past my face. What was even more puzzling was they had the word 'Federal' printed on the bottom. They turned out to be the shell casings ejected by the officer who was firing next to me."
Fire fighter Ryan Jordan tells a similar story. The moment when a forest fire suddenly came racing their way and they had to think fast to avoid getting flame broiled, the crucial moment felt like somebody had paused the game.
Why Can't We Do This All of the Time?
How fast time moves for you is literally all in your head. But you know that, you've been in the waiting room at the dentist, or in the chair while they put that huge tattoo of a bald eagle and American flag on your forehead. Talk about bullet time. Seconds become hours.
Something similar happens during moments of frantic mayhem, but for different reasons. Experts say it's because your brain has two modes of experiencing the world, rational and experiential. The first one is what you're probably in now, calm and able to think things through. But if a bomb goes off on the other side of the room, you'll suddenly be in the experiential mode.
Legal note: Please don't test this just so you can call us liars when you blow up your office building.
Your brain goes into a kind of overdrive, bypassing all sorts of analytical and rational thinking processes in favor of hair trigger decision-making. Most normal thinking processes are scrapped, and suddenly you're operating on instinct (or in the case of a cop or soldier, your training). And because you're thinking faster, the world seems to be moving slower. It makes sense; Neo never had the ability to slow down time. He could just move really fast.
So why can't you just turn it on like Neo? A better question is, would you want to? In those times of your life when you've had to make panicked, split-second decisions, how good were those decisions? We're going to hazard a guess that most of the most idiotic (non-drunken) decisions you've made have been in the middle of some kind of panic.
This is why they make police go through all that training. You have to overcome your natural instinct to start crying and shooting in random directions. Experiential thinking is to your brain like stripping all the weight off your car to make it faster. It's not just losing the air conditioning and headrest DVD players; it's losing the antilock brakes and power steering as well.
Now that we think of it, it's kind of like instead of turning you into Neo, it turns you into Keanu Reeves.
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