We were running late that day. Three months into parenthood and time seemed to be perpetually against us – a constant battle against the clock to get the baby fed, changed and out the door.
It was the first Saturday afternoon since the pubs had reopened in England and we were meeting friends for lunch. The streets around southeast London were teeming. Wobbly tables spilled out on to the pavement, trays packed with pints, friends hugging, reunited after too long apart.
We walked around, trying and failing to get a table. The baby was starting to get grizzly. Coffee and a walk seemed the best bet. Or wine? “Maybe we could get a bottle from that place there and head to the park,” a friend suggested. “Let me pay,” said another, rummaging around for a mask. “Quick, chuck my wallet over!” Ordinary, but entirely extraordinary decisions which, made any other way, could have been our last.
Seconds later, there was a nauseating crunch of metal, then a shriek of tyres. Less than 5m ahead of us a car had lost control, mounted the pavement and hit a wall head-on. The driver, panicked, pressed the accelerator and yanked the steering-wheel in the opposite direction, causing the car to ricochet along the shops beside us, then swerve, jagged, jolting, towards the pram cradling our tiny, sleeping baby – the first obstacle in its path.
The car ricocheted along the shops beside us, then swerved, jolting, towards the pram and our tiny, sleeping baby
I froze, fixed to the spot. I felt a distinct sensation of falling – sideways, forwards – as a friend pulled me to safety. Then the car was alongside us, close enough to touch. I turned to watch as it careered passed us and along the pavement, before making a skidding stop 50m ahead. The driver sat statue-still, hands on the steering-wheel. Mangled bikes and broken shop boards lay strewn in its path. The pram holding our now inconsolable baby had been moved aside by my partner and was leaning, tilted, against a parked car, two wheels on the kerb, two on the road.
There were voices, muffled as if underwater, and the arms of strangers around my shoulders, steadying me. “You’d better sit down.” “Can I get you a drink? Cup of tea? Something stronger?”
We stood huddled together at the side of the pavement, watching as the police cordoned off the road and attempting to piece together what had happened. But our memories had blanked. Instead, we clutched on to our luck. What if we’d arrived earlier today, or later? What if we’d been centimetres further across the pavement, millimetres even? Somehow we were still here. Not only that: we had magically – miraculously – escaped unscathed. How?
“The brain has a great deal of drive to survive,” says survival psychologist Dr Sarita Robinson from the University of Central Lancashire. “Every day, it works hard to ensure we don’t die – it’s strongly averse to that scenario. When a sharp, acute incident occurs, there’s no time for a conscious response, so the survival instinct kicks in, redirecting resources to our brains and bodies in order to get us through the event.”
Robinson speaks from experience. She, too, once faced a similar threat. When her son was less than one year old, an oncoming car screeched to a halt as it came around a blind corner, its number plate touching hers. She says she has no memory of the event other than the horrified expression of the other driver. It was a seminal moment that changed her life’s course. “When I got home I just thought, ‘You only live once. Today could have been the day,’” she says. “That was a catalyst for why I went into this line of work.”
Now with the trademarked title Dr Survival, Robinson conducts research into people’s reactions to emergencies, looking at why some are more likely to survive than others and what we can do to improve our chances of survival. She says there are three common responses to a life-threatening event.
The first is based on existing skills, knowledge or behaviour. Robinson points to the example of a senior firefighter called to attend a fire that had broken out at a nearby building. On arrival, he quickly realised that the heat source came not from the ground floor, as a 999 caller had reported, but from the basement, and he calculated that walking along the floorboards would mean weakening them further and the whole floor would probably collapse. He was able to direct his team safely out of the building. The firefighter could remain calm, confident that his instincts were correct.
The second reaction to danger is to revert to routine or habit. When people working in New York’s Twin Towers became aware they were facing a life-threatening situation, some put the milk in the fridge, while others got their coats. They didn’t have time to think through their next steps, so they behaved in a way that was familiar to them.
My response falls into the third category – cognitive paralysis. When events unfolded faster than my brain could process them, I froze. This, says Dr John Leach, a psychologist from the University of Portsmouth with over 30 years experience researching the survival instinct, is how most people react to a hazard. He argues that the “fight-flight-freeze” reflex should be reframed “freeze-flight-fight”; thiswould, at a cognitive level, be considered is a more normal sequence of events.
As primates we had to freeze, but now that makes little sense. We’re not prey, but our brains still think that we are
“As primates, our main threat was predators wandering around with sharp teeth, ready to attack us,” says Leach. “Predators detect movement in their prey very easily so, in order to survive, we had to freeze – to move as little as possible or not at all. But in the modern world, that makes little sense. We’re not prey, but our brains still think that we are.”
One of the defining characteristics of cognitive paralysis is memory loss. Usually we recall events later, in a series of flashbacks. The senses are overwhelmed and become heightened, boosting engagement with the environment around us. The car crashing into the wall sounded particularly loud to me, for instance; skidding brakes seemed to travel at a higher pitch. And time appeared to slow down as my brain struggled to process what I was experiencing. It is this time lapse – the brain catching up with what’s happened – that affects the memory.
During the impact phase of an emergency, the brain is working hard to keep all the plates spinning. As soon as a potential threat appears, information is passed to the amygdala – the part of the brain that stores and processes emotions. If the threat is confirmed, the hypothalamus – one of three areas of the brain responsible for memory recall – is triggered, switching on the physiological systems designed to help us survive. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, which sits at the front of the brain, responsible for planning ahead and predicting future events, is jammed, ensuring that we deal with the immediate threat. Our brains are now running at full capacity, so there’s nothing left to lay down memories.
Once the brain has started working to contain the threat, it instructs the body’s systems to kick into gear. Adrenaline causes the heart to start beating rapidly and more blood circulates around the body. The airways in the lungs expand, carrying oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles. The pupils dilate to take in and compute information more rapidly. This is the body preparing to fight or take flight.