Saturday, December 8, 2012

Powers of Observation

I witnessed a minor car crash on the way to work one day this week.  The incident left me thinking about what I saw, what others saw, and what I later thought I saw.  It's so very interesting how our brains work in such situations.

First let me say that no-one was seriously hurt, thank goodness, although the woman who was not at fault was quite shaken up and was attended to by paramedics.

I was the closest witness and, in fact, was nearly involved myself.  As I headed east on a two-lane street, I was going slowly having just passed a school zone, a pretty good line of cars behind me.  One lone car came from the opposite direction somewhat slowly as she approached the school zone (typical traffic density for the morning with most of us going east).  Both sides of the street were lined with parked cars, as always.  An older model black car suddenly emerged from a driveway nose first and plowed into the westbound car ripping off a good portion of the front end.  The black car seemed to pause a little and then suddenly accelerated continuing across the street directly in my path, and then into a driveway, crashing through a gate that crossed that driveway.

It literally all played out before my eyes in seeming slow motion while my brain seemed stuck on one word: What? What? What?

My reaction was to look for an out--a place to go to avoid being hit by a riccocheting car, but there was nowhere to go, and slamming on the brakes and bracing was all I could do.

Everything came to a stop.  The words in my brain changed to, "I'm a witness, I have to stop."  I gathered my senses, pulled forward, made a U-turn and parked to see if help was needed and to offer what I had seen.  A few other witnesses stopped.  Eventually, cops arrived and paramedics.  We gave statements to the cops. A woman from the black car took responsibility and offered her insurance papers.  I wrote down all the information for the other driver who was confused and trying to call her husband.

The second person on the scene was the driver behind me.  She said the driver and passenger of the black car, switched places immediately when the car stopped. I think it was a mother and son. From appearances of both, I later thought there might be some impairment involved.  The son seemed hyper and jumpy, the mother was angry but in control.  Their appearances suggested an alternative lifestyle which I'm not inclined to judge. But his florescent orange hair, piercings, and mostly his manner influenced my thinking--perhaps unfairly.

I realized I only saw what the cars did.  I did not see who was driving or riding in either car.  My statement was supportive in determining fault.  But I could not say who was driving the black car.  Other witnesses say it was the young man not the woman.  I kept pushing myself to only remember what I saw in the slow motion moment and not what I was hearing others say.

I was surprised how clear-headed and calm I was in the throes of the event--talking to the shaken up woman, getting her some water, and writing down information for her; giving a concise statement to the police of just what I saw and no more--even while adreneline was flowing through my veins from my own close call; and when my input was no longer needed, continuing on to work.

For some time afterward, my powers of observation were in high gear.  I was noticing details everywhere.  I was making an effort to do so.  But after awhile, I couldn't keep it up and lapsed into mindless driving, thinking about where I was going and what I would be doing.

There have been studies that demonstrate how our "memory" is easily influenced by what other people say happened--that people can believe to have actual recollection of things that they never truly experienced but were only told about.  What tricks our minds can play on us.  I've heard it said that eye witnesses are the least reliable witnesses.

I have wondered ever since this event if I could do better.  If I could practice observing details and remembering them, and not be tricked by what other people saw differently. At least I was cognitive of this while giving my own statement, and recognizing that details others described were not things I actually saw and could not confirm.  That's a start certainly.  In the moment I hear something that I don't really recall, to file it in a place in the brain under "What I heard" and not under "What I know."

But also to simply be more observant at all times when driving, walking, out in public--and save the day-dreaming for when I am sitting safely on my own couch.

1 comment:

Hawk's Perspective said...

The brain is much more acute in situations like you described gathering far more information than usual. You are unusually aware simply to recognize the change in perception. Very interesting stuff. Glad you didn't get hit.