May 29, 12: Fear of speed
“Tachophobia is the condition of having an abnormal, extreme, and persistent fear of speed, that is, the experience of traveling quickly.”Each new generation seems to be moving faster than the last one. Take any sport, for example, and you will see world records broken, even if they seemed impregnable when they were set. Yes, Jim Hines, the first person to run 100 meters in under ten seconds, held his world record for 15 years, but his time of 9.95 seconds at the 1968 Olympics would have landed him in sixth place in Beijing 2008.
We are always trying to go and be faster. Faster is the first word of the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius – Swifter, Higher, Stronger. Almost as soon as we learn to walk, we start to run. Just ten years after Henry Ford introduced the Model T, attempts were made to build a car that would fly. And with his Model T, Ford developed the assembly line, a method of faster, uniform production that revolutionized manufacturing.
There is speed chess, speed dating, not to forget competitive speed eating – who can gulp down the most hotdogs in ten minutes. But just as surely as we strive to go faster – and farther – a fear of speed lurks as well. “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches!” wrote the Quarterly Review – in 1825.
It is not only the speed of the outside world that matters. We also need speed inside our brain, says Paul Thompson, professor of neurology at UCLA’s School of Medicine, who found in a 2009 study that people with higher IQ scores also had faster brains – their nerve impulses were faster.
The good news is that brain speed, while inherited, can also be exercised. “The wires between the brain cells, the connections, can be modified throughout life. They change and improve through your 40s, 50s, and 60s,” says Thompson.
The thing with speed is that when we do something faster, the risk of losing control rises, and it is that lack of control that rattles us. On the other hand, as American novelist William S. Burroughs wrote in Esquire magazine in 1986, “Among elite speed-sport athletes, the feeling of having absolute control, that demonstration of mastery under enormous stress, produces a euphoria unlike anything else they’ve experienced.”
Two-time Formula 1 world champion, Mika Häkkinen, was involved in a big accident on the first lap of his first race when he was five years old. His memory of the event is not of the crash, he has said, but the worried look on his father’s face. Mika was not afraid of speed. He needed it.
In 1995 in Australia, he was involved in a serious crash that nearly cost him his life, yet went on to win two world championships. But once he became a father himself, his taste for speed diminished. He started to think.
When we feel we are losing control, that we cannot keep up or catch up, that our brain no longer computes, things start to move a little too fast, whether we are behind a wheel or in a conference room.
This sense of losing control has given rise to a counter-culture, a backlash to the speed of modern-day life. We now have a slow movement promoting a slower pace of life: slow food, slow travel, slow science, slow design, slow art, even slow gardening.
Going slow is one alternative, but if you want to face your fear of speed, why not take a page out of the snowboarders’ handbook? Livestrong.com lists five steps to overcoming the fear of speed:
1. Get instructions from someone who knows.
2. Practice taking falls.
3. Breathe deep and slowly.
4. Stay warm.
5. Know your basic moves well.
And if you are still fearful, just remember that twenty years from now you can look back on today as the halcyon days. The slow days.
Published in Profile 2/12.