My all-time favorite description of what time is comes not from a scientist but from a writer of pulp science fiction, the late Ray Cumming. In 1922, he observed that time is “what keeps everything from happening at once.”

This is more than a not-half-way-bad way of describing time. In fact, it’s such a doggone-good way that even some very reputable scientists say it is hard to beat.

Today, professionals in a variety of fields are recognizing the importance of “keeping everything from happening at once.” Or if you can’t keep the time crunch out of unfolding events, the importance of understanding how the brain seeks to cope when everything seems to be happening at once and making allowances for all-too-brief tick-tocks in time.

In California not too long ago, Sergeant Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs, a police training expert, took up this subject with 275 lawyers who defend cops and their municipalities in lawsuits. The plaintiffs in these suits are often alleging wrongful deaths from police bullets.

When a mole hill looks like a mountain

Papenfuhs is a great fan of Dr. Matthew J. Sharps, a psychology professor at California State University, Fresno, who has made a career of studying the actions of people who must make split-second, life-and-death-affecting decisions. Sharps has even gone so far as to do cognitive and psychological post-mortems of events like Custer’s last stand, the Battle of Mogadishu and the Battle of the Bulge.

He learned that cavalry soldiers at Little Big Horn tried to take cover behind small piles of soft soil, where they died. Because they were stupid? No, Sharp concluded, because when everything is happening at once, the brain has a tendency to grab at the first apparent possibility. There isn’t a lot of natural cover on the American Great Plains. And Custer’s men hadn’t been trained to think about beating a zigzag retreat until they could reach an arroyo or a big rock or something else more solid to duck behind than a prairie dog mound.

But it wasn’t what happened at Little Big Horn but in one of Sharps’ experiments that, according to Papenfuhs, caused gasps of disbelief from the lawyers present at his recent lecture. Rather, it was evidence of what the brain may decide when there’s very little time—and often very little information.

Sharps’ discoveries that most dumbfounded the cop-defending lawyers were these: (A) Ordinary people have an overwhelming tendency to shoot people they believe are threatening them with a gun. (B) They will do so even if the perpetrator is holding a power screwdriver that they have mistaken for a weapon. (C) But only about one in 10 people believes it is appropriate for a police officer to fire under the same circumstances.

All these cops saw was the hair

In his book, Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement, Sharps offers his G/FI (Gestalt/Feature Intensive) Processing Theory. Boiled to a few words, it says that when everything is happening at once, the brain defaults to what it feels is most right (that’s the “gestalt” part). It really doesn’t even have to think about it; in fact, it usually doesn’t. If you want it to do something else—in cop talk, make good tactical decisions—then you better spend a lot of time upfront explicitly teaching the brain about what to look for and what to do when it finds it (that’s the “feature intensive” part).

Rapid cognition—or the lack of it—was, of course, the subject matter that The New Yorker magazine’s curiosity hog, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Interestingly, he got the idea for the book from—who else?—a bunch of cops. It happened when, on a whelm, he let his hair grow wild like it had been as a teenager and suddenly started getting stopped a lot by the fuzz. One time he was grilled for twenty minutes as a rape suspect when his skin color, age, height and weight were all wrong. “All we [he and the actual rapist] had in common was a large head of curly hair,” he notes.

That tweaked Gladwell’s interest. “Something about the first impression created by my hair derailed every other consideration in the hunt for the rapist, and the impression formed in those first two seconds exerted a powerful hold over the officers’ thinking over the next twenty minutes,” he says. “That episode on the street got me thinking about the weird power of first impressions.”

Like Professor Sharps, Gladwell was often riveted by how the brain responds—and sometimes how good it is when it does—to situations where everything is happening at once. Nor by any means are those two the first to pursue this. For years, research psychologist Gary Klein has been studying how people make decisions when pressured for time. When he first started, he assumed that people thought rationally even when time was being sliced thin. But then he met a fire commander who demurred when asked how he made difficult decisions. “I don’t remember when I’ve ever made a decision,” the firefighter said. So what does he do? He replied that he just does what is obviously the right thing to do.

On thin ice, it’s good to do thin slicing

This was the beginning of Klein’s years-long inquiry into what he ended up calling “Recognition-Primed Decision-Making.” It’s not a cut-and-dried process, since the decision-maker can change his or her mind from moment to moment and often needs to.

Say a fire commander goes into a burning house, believing it to be a regular kitchen fire. But as he’s scouting around he realizes that things are too quiet and too hot. He’s uncomfortable, so he orders his team out—just before the floor collapses. The big fire was in the basement. The guy didn’t even know the house had a basement; he just knew this fire was not behaving like other fires in his experience. Klein calls this “seeing the invisible.” In Blink, Gladwell borrowed a phrase from psychologists: “the power of thin slicing.” Like Klein, he marvels at how capable the human brain can be at making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience.

There is growing evidence that in situations where there is incessantly too much information incoming and not nearly enough time to come to a decision in classic laboratory (“non-garbage-in, non-garbage-out”) fashion, it behooves someone needing a favorable decision from the decider to appeal to the brain’s “powers of thin slicing.”

Literary agent Jillian Manus offers such advice at writers’ conferences to wannabe authors who are battling uphill odds that their ideas for books will ever get the full attention of a reputable agent, much less get an offer of representation. The really good (“successful”) agents get hundreds of snail mail and/or e-mail queries weekly, if not daily. This is another of those “everything is happening at once” realities. So it is critical that a writer do everything possible to instantly engage an agent’s powers of thin-slicing.

Who knows what cagier blinks will turn up?

One of Manus’s suggestions is to give an agent a comparative pitch in the very first words of a query letter. That is, tell the agent that the work is “somewhat like a this and a this.” Jane Smiley’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres? It’s King Lear in a corn field. Clueless, the movie? Emma meets Beverly Hills 90210. The war drama, Cold Mountain? Gone With the Wind meets Faulkner. The science fiction novel, The Last Day? Manus successfully pitched it to a publisher as Michael Crichton meets the Celestine Prophecy.

Some of the more daring minds in our midst think that the universe itself has taken steps to avoid being taxed with unmanageable demands on its processing power. Science fiction writer/astrophysicist David Brin speculates that the 186,000-miles-per-second limit on how fast light can travel may be an artifact “introduced in order not to have to deal with the software loads of modeling a cosmos that is infinitely observable.” Or at the level of the quantum, “the division of reality into ‘quanta’ that are fundamentally indivisible, like the submicroscopic Planck length, below which no questions may be asked.”

Though he doesn’t talk about it exactly in these terms, Brin even wonders if our growing powers of thin slicing have us on the verge of figuring out or at least strongly suspecting that we are all reconstituted virtual people living out our lives in a reconstituted virtual reality. A simulation created by greater-intelligences-than-are-we operating way out in front of us, time-wise.

On his blog, Brin once wrote: “Take the coincidence of names that keep cropping up, almost as if the ‘author’ of our cosmic simulation were having a little joke. Like the almost unlimited amount of fun you can have with Barack Obama’s name. Or the fact that World War II featured a battle in which Adolf the Wolf attacked the Church on the Hill, who begged help from the Field of Roses, which asked its Marshall to send an Iron-hewer to fight in the Old World and a Man of Arthur to fight across the greatest lake (the Pacific) … does the Designer really think we don’t notice stuff like this? Or maybe this designer just doesn’t care.”

As we get better and better at deciphering what goes on in our minds in a blink in time, maybe we’ll begin to notice all kinds of things that have been eluding our powers of thin slicing. Meanwhile, our interest in what we are already noticing can only grow.

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