Words by Cassie Neiden
Photo by Marianna Fierro
A look at one student’s traumatic experience and the science behind why she’s able to remember it all.
Terry’s Dairy, a mom-and-pop ice cream shop in Lorain, Ohio, was closing early. It was Oct. 13, 2011, and business was a little slow like it was every year around this time. The demand for ice cream dropped now that school was back in full-swing, and the hot summer air had changed to a cool fall breeze.
At 7:30 p.m. the three teenage girls on duty started to clean the shop. Each had a designated station: One was in the rear kitchen, another was at the front counter and Rachel Rivas, a junior psychology major, was on restroom duty, between the kitchen and the storefront. The ice cream shop was Rivas’ part-time employer while she was in high school. She became close to the owners, Bill and Terry Haines, who brought her in like family, as they did with all their employees. Her best friend, Carley Evans, also worked there.
“The Dairy,” as she shortens it, was like a home away from home.
Rivas was mopping in and out of the stalls and around the toilets that night. She recalls what she was wearing: a skinny, light blue pair of Forever 21 jeans, her new, black Reboks and her Terry’s Dairy company shirt, when she heard someone storm into the store.
A young man dressed in a black hoodie, baggy jeans and a ski mask started shouting, “Open up the registers! Now! I have a gun!” as he waved it at Evans, who was at the front counter. Rivas turned abruptly to face her friend, then froze, clutching her mop. The restroom door was propped open by a wood block attached to a chain, which was attached to the wall. A glass door between the bathroom and the storefront allowed her to see Evans.
Evans stood paralyzed, unable to speak, staring at the man. Rivas couldn’t see him because the counter blocked her view, but Evans’ body language reinforced her fear.
Rivas began frantically strategizing.
“The first thing was: Protect yourself,” she said. “Shut the door, lock it. Stay in there until you hear Mr. or Mrs. Haines’ voice. The moment you hear their voice, you’re OK. Then I started saying, ‘If only I had my cell phone,’ because it was sitting in the back on the table. ‘If only I had my cell phone. I could have called 911. He could shoot my best friend.’ And that started going through my head. ‘How do I defend Carley? How do I get out to her? Should I grab this, should I grab that?’”
Once she realized that all she had was a mop, broom and bucket full of warm water to defend herself, she yanked the make-shift door prop by the chain (which her bosses would frequently scold her for, but this time she didn’t care) and let the door slam. As the door was closing, she saw the robber jump the counter to get closer to Evans and the register. For a moment she worried that he had heard her, but she quickly disregarded the thought. Rivas locked the door. She stayed put, trying to believe that she was safe, but her body didn’t say so. With her hands shaking, thoughts racing, adrenaline pumping, Rivas waited for what she felt was an eternity.
Bill Haines was sitting in the back room talking to another employee for the first few minutes. Though he could see Evans, he was unaware of what was going on. But once he saw the robber jump the counter, he jumped out of his seat and bolted toward the storefront shouting, “What the hell is going on here?”
By this point, the robber was standing in the middle of Haines and Evans. He pointed the gun at Haines, then turned and pointed it at Evans again. Then he suddenly panicked and ran out of the store empty-handed.
More than a year later, Rivas recalls the details of the event in Jazzman’s Cyber Café in the student center. She took in everything during those terrifying moments. The perception of the details haven’t escaped her. The robber was only there for a few minutes, but to her, that was one of the longest nights of her life.
But why is that? When life-threatening moments happen, it may seem that for many of us, time is actually moving slower, and for a moment you may feel like Neo in “The Matrix”. Studies within the past six years, however, show that in these moments the brain doesn’t perceive time slower, but it records memories better.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas simulated a life-threatening free-fall experiment to discover that memory plays a slow-motion effect on our brains.
His experiment, published in 2007, involved a Suspended Catch Air Catch Device (SCAD) that allowed participants in his study to fall backwards off of a 150-foot tower for 2.49 seconds before landing safely in a net. To test his initial theory that the brain’s perception speeds up, he gave the participants an LED watch that alternated digits and their negatives (for example, the number 4 would be lit up in red with a black background, then the lights would switch so that the red background created a black 4). The randomized digits and their negatives would flash quicker than the brain could perceive in a normal state of mind. Eagleman hoped that in his experiment, his participants would be able to read them.
That wasn’t the case. When his participants were in their terrifying free-fall, the numbers on the watch weren’t any clearer, which led Eagleman to believe that it was an effect of memory, not perception of time, that made time seem slower. Eagleman’s theory is that time seems slower because your brain is writing down more memory than it would in an everyday situation.
When our brains normally process our world, they automatically throw out relatively unimportant data, like the eye color of the person you’ve just met or a street sign you passed on the highway minutes ago. Things that are important are written in our brains and kept there for us to reflect on, but according to Eagleman, a life-threatening situation, such as an attempted robbery, makes our brains write down much more than it normally would. Eagleman believes that the amygdala is the part of the brain that allows this to happen.
The amygdala associates with emotional reactions and memory, and kicks into high gear in events like these and brings you into a higher state of awareness. The emotion Rivas was feeling was one of the reasons she can remember details like the look on Evans’ face, the thoughts racing through her head and the exact spot she was mopping the moment she heard the robber first walk in.
“[The amygdala] recruits other parts of the brain to lay down memories on a secondary memory track,” Eagleman said. In other words, the amygdala may be encoding these memories in more than one way.
Aaron Jasnow, assistant professor in Kent State’s department of psychology, says that our brains contain neurotransmitters (which are like our brain’s messengers that carry signals from one area to another) that release chemicals throughout the brain. These neurotransmitters, along with hormones, are released more during emotional situations.
“It seems to enhance processing of the events that are going on so that you would potentially remember those events more,” Jasnow said.
This is true of both happy memories and frightening ones, according to Jasnow. The brain works the same way to remember both positive and negative situations.
Eagleman said that Rivas’ experience could have been what’s called a flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory is a memory that’s vivid and easy to recall, and it’s usually created during an emotional event.
But although the flashbulb memory is clear, there could be a chance that what Rivas remembers is not completely accurate. Over time, memories can be altered, and many memories seem to be solidified a long while after the event happened.
There is the misconception out there that emotional memories are more reliable, but in fact, they’re “every bit as subject to perceiving incorrectly,” Eagleman said. Rivas said that some of the Terry’s Dairy employees believed the handle of the robber’s gun was white, but others swear seeing a wooden handle.
There are many other ways that your brain process memory. These are just a couple of them.
But it’s these emotional and stressful situations like robberies or free falling that actually give you a little glimpse of what your brain normally collects without your conscious attention, like a visit inside your mind’s complex internal database.
The robbery doesn’t keep Rivas up at night. She’s moved on since then. So have her co-workers, she says. But recalling that time in her life, that moment of panic that left her locked in the bathroom was easy for her to do. She can explain the details as if they just happened yesterday. So whether it’s the excitement of something like your first kiss or even the terror of being held at gunpoint, the emotion of the memory is what makes it stronger. Turns out, the moments that felt like a lifetime, may very well last a lifetime in your memory.