By James Hilston
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
on December 1, 2012
My brain froze, but this time it wasn't the result of too many bites of vanilla bean ice cream downed too quickly. It was pure fear -- the work of the lizard brain -- irrational and debilitating.
I was on my way to work, on Highway 14 in Ohio. I stopped at the traffic signal near East Palestine, just behind a large tractor-trailer rig. The light changed to green, and the rig and I proceeded through the light. A hundred yards later, the truck's brake lights lit up, its tires chirping as it abruptly ground to a halt. I slammed on my brakes. A microsecond later, I heard a crash and saw the hindquarters of a red Pontiac G6 pivoting around the front of the truck.
I maneuvered my vehicle onto the shoulder and turned off the ignition. It appeared that the oncoming car must have gone left of center, just as the truck had begun to accelerate out of the intersection, resulting in a head-on collision.
First, let's go over what I did not do.
I did not throw open my car door and run over to the crashed vehicles. I did not assess the situation with acute mental clarity to determine the best course of action. I did not muster some vestige of heroism and pull bodies out of the totaled car. Nor did I selflessly drag the injured a safe distance from the smoking wreckage. It didn't even occur to me that the driver of the truck may have been injured as well.
Now, let's go over what I did do.
Nothing. I froze. It was the lizard brain. For those who are unfamiliar with it, highly stressful or emotional situations are processed in a special part of our brains, the amygdala -- or the lizard brain -- resulting in one of four reactions, referred to by brain scientists as the "Four Fs." These include fight and flight. My lizard brain chose freeze.
I sat there for what felt like eons, not thinking -- at least, not aware of any thinking -- and just breathed. Eventually, and probably not as long a time as it seemed at that moment, I exited my vehicle. Although my head was facing the direction of the collision, I didn't actually look at the scene, but rather through it. Frankly, I was afraid, profoundly afraid, of what I would see. Surely, I thought, there will be entrails spilled and brains strewn throughout that car. I should also add, at some indeterminate point, I had taken off my glasses.
It then dawned on me that I needed to call 911. I fished my phone out of my pocket and pushed the numbers. Apparently I was still under the influence of the lizard brain. When the 911 operator answered my call, I was dumbstruck. All I said was, "There's been an accident." Then I realized the enormous vagueness of that statement.
As she began to ask further questions, I talked over her. "A traffic accident. A truck ... I mean, a tractor-trailer ... and a car. They hit head-on."
She proceeded to ask where I was, if I was aware of any injuries and, once again, I was in a reptilian fog. I couldn't even think of what road I was on, the intersection I had just driven through, let alone the town I was nearest to. The operator seemed to know I was struggling and she was patient.
"I need to look around," I said. I looked back at the intersection, studied it until I felt familiarity and coherent thoughts flowing again. "Near East Palestine, at the intersection of Route 14 and the main road that heads toward East Palestine." She probably asked a few other questions before she thanked me, assured me that help was on the way, and ended the call.
Just as quickly as the call ended, the fear returned. What now? I couldn't just stand there when I knew there was at least one person who was probably badly hurt, if not dead.
As I looked again toward the accident scene, I could hear hysterical wailing; a woman's voice. I focused my eyes and saw two people in the front seat. Both were moving, shifting around. The woman was in the passenger seat, flailing her arms. I heard the driver, a male, moaning.
Amazed that they were both conscious -- and relieved that I would likely not be seeing spilled entrails and strewn brains today -- I pulled two water bottles out of my car and walked toward them. The driver-side door of the smashed car opened, and the man clambered out and onto the pavement. He didn't have any shoes on. Did the crash knock his shoes off?
As I neared him, he scooted out of the way of the door, making room for the female passenger. She slid out of the car and sat next to him, both of their backs against the wrecked vehicle. He was moaning loudly; she was still thrashing and hollering incoherently.
I approached with caution and asked if they were OK. Strangely, they both waved me off with a "mind your own business" sort of gesture. I held out the bottles of water and asked if they would like to have them. Neither answered verbally; just another dismissive "go away" gesture. They clearly did not want to be bothered.
I backed off and examined the scene again. The tractor-trailer had very little damage, whereas the entire engine compartment of the car had been obliterated by a 45-plus m.p.h. collision. Both air bags had been deployed and there were shoes on the floor on the driver's side.
I was surprised to see that a small crowd was gathering. The cranial chameleon had so focused my attention that I was oblivious to other drivers, stopping to help, as well as the driver of the tractor-trailer, who seemed to be fine.
Several emergency vehicles arrived. EMTs strapped the ingrate car occupants to gurneys and began wheeling them away. A police officer was talking to the truck driver. I joined a group of people who were speculating about what had happened. I told them that I saw the whole thing. That was a mistake, because the inner iguana was still in the proverbial driver seat.
As people began asking me questions, it became clear that I not only wasn't ready to talk, but I was having trouble remembering what had just occurred.
"The couple told the police that the woman was driving," one man said.
"That's not true!" I blurted.
They all looked at me. I then found myself struggling to remember in what order the two people came out of their car. Then a police officer came over to take my statement. The power of speech and coherent thought gradually returned as I tried to describe everything that happened. I suddenly remembered the man's shoeless feet and the shoes on the driver-side floor. My words and thoughts were finally coming together, and I was relieved to feel my memory of the event begin to congeal into a logical narrative.
But even as I drove away, I remained focused on pulling the pieces of my experience together, bewildered by my ineptness and cognitive dysfunction. It wouldn't be until I arrived at work that I would realize that I -- or more specifically, my lizard brain -- had taken off and misplaced my glasses somewhere at the accident site. Needless to say, I never found them.