The art of falling – human and feline
“Help me, I think I’m falling.”
~ Joni Mitchell
Having been a rock climber for many decades, and not a remarkable one at that, I am familiar with the sensation of falling. One particular rock-climbing fall in 1979 stands out above all the rest for two reasons – the distance fallen and the perceived time doing so.
Nick Brash and I were climbing one of the longer routes at Seneca Rocks. The climb was unremittingly overhanging, but not severely so. We were about three-quarters up the 600-foot West Face of Seneca – this is the exposure you see from the tiny village of Seneca Rocks, formerly the Mouth of Seneca.
Climbers generally take turns leading pitches, and it was my turn to take the lead. We had decided to leave the main climbing route and try a steep face that neither of us had been on before.
All went well until I got about 30 feet above my protection, which happened to be an old and dubious-looking piton of World War II vintage. But, despite the route’s slight overhang, the climbing was only moderately difficult.
I arrived at a small roof that had to be surmounted but saw what looked like a good handhold out on the roof’s lip. I would have to leave the relative safety of the good holds under the roof and commit to an upward lunge to the lip a foot or so above me.
I breathed in, exhaled, and lunged for the hold, but the hold broke as soon as I put my weight on it. Because I was 30 feet above the piton, my total fall would be at least sixty feet. I would be in free-fall to the piton and the additional 30 feet of slack in the climbing rope.
In the parlance of rock climbers, this fall would qualify as a “screamer.”
But, Nick was on the ball and immediately locked off the rope to arrest my fall.
This was a textbook fall, having used proper climbing gear and my partner was a competent belayer. Because the route was overhanging, I did not hit any ledges or protrusions on the way down. It was an unobstructed free fall for more than 60 feet when adding in the rope’s built-in stretch.
The most salient memory of this fall was that it seemed to last a long time. Long enough that I still remember my thoughts about hoping the piton would hold and that Nick would stop my fall. I also remember seeing a climber on a nearby route watching me with his mouth wide open as I plunged past him; it seemed funny.
Later, I could not understand how I could have entertained all of those thoughts in what I later learned would have been 2.1 seconds. It was as if time had slowed down for me.
“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall.” ~ Grace Slick from White Rabbit
Many people who have survived life-threatening falls report that the experience seemed to happen in slow motion. When asked how long they think the fall lasted, they almost always overestimate the time.
A neuroscientist named David Eagleman had such an experience when he fell from the roof of a building under construction when he was eight years old.
He only fell fourteen feet, but he remembers thinking about many things in the 0.86 seconds of free fall. Including if this is what Alice in Wonderland felt when she fell into the rabbit hole.
This mystery stayed with him until he decided to research the perception of time while falling. His test subjects would volunteer for the thrill of their lives, a free-fall plunge of 15 stories, about 150 feet.
SCAD Diving (suspended catch air device) consists of a platform from which the subject is temporarily suspended. After a short countdown, the subject is released to a 150 feet fall into a net.
Test subjects wear a perceptual chronometer on their wrist. This device measures the elapsed time of the plunge in increments of seconds. The chronometer dial spins rapidly – much too fast to see in real-time.
Eagleman asks the subjects to see if they can read the chronometer during their fall, which they cannot. If they were falling in slow motion, as is often reported, they would be able to read the chronometer, presumably also operating in slow motion.
The results of this test are readily apparent to most of us. However, its value lies in eliminating the slowing down of time suggestion as a causal factor for allowing so much cerebral activity in an exceedingly short period.
It turns out that the answer to this puzzle has to do with how our brain responds to life or death situations. People who survive horrific automobile accidents often report the same slow-motion passing of time that fallers do.
The flood of memories and thoughts condensed into a short span of time is an evolutionary function of the unconscious mind. Our conscious mind does not note most of our everyday experiences and stimuli. Still, they nevertheless become part of our memories, to be recalled when needed.
When our lives are in danger, there is a flurry of neural activity searching for information that may be advantageous to us, possibly even save our lives.
Time does not literally slow down; the brain simply speeds up.
How do cats manage to always land on their feet?
It was a total mystery how cats managed to right themselves in free fall and land on their feet.
People in the Dark Ages assumed that cats consorted with the Devil and witches. It was a dangerous time to be a human, let alone a cat.
Cats were put into barrels and run through with swords as a form of entertainment. Then there was another pastime of the brutal barbarians called defenestration. This popular form of brutality consisted of dropping cats from windows.
Cathedrals aside, buildings in the Dark Ages seldom exceeded three to five stories in height. So cats only enjoyed, at most, a 70-foot fall, a mere joyride for Boots. The cat almost always walked away, leaving the cat-torturers feeling rage and frustration – hurrah for the cats.
How cats survive such falls intact wasn’t solved until a 19th century French scientist named Etienne Jules Marey had a sterling idea. Using a process called chronophotography, a series of still photos captured the locomotion of humans and animals. Time-lapse photography was yet to come.
When arranged on a single photograph, one could study motion in great detail. For example, this process was used to settle a long-standing debate as to whether there is any point in a horse’s stride in which all four feet are off the ground simultaneously. Chronophotography demonstrated that there is.
Midtown Manhattan 1986
One Midtown veterinary clinic treated 132 cats that had fallen from windows in a five-month period when windows are more likely to be open in high rises.
The veterinarians noted something quite strange, which became the basis of the Feline High-Rise Syndrome paper.
Cats who fell from nine stories or higher generally survived with minimal injuries. Cats who fell from less than five stories overwhelmingly survived with few injuries.
But, and this is a head-scratcher without knowing the science behind it, cats that fell from five to nine stories had more severe injuries or were killed.
So, what is different about the unfortunate cats that lived and fell in the five-to-nine story category of high-rises?
Two important factors come into play here, a cat’s ability to right itself and a little issue of terminal velocity.
Essentially terminal velocity is attained when there is an equilibrium between gravity pulling you down and wind resistance (drag) slowing your descent. For a cat, terminal velocity is about 60 mph.
(We will dive deeper into terminal velocity next week.)
The critical thing to remember is that there is no further increase in speed upon reaching terminal velocity. You are now on cruise control for the rest of your fall unless you, say, open a parachute.
As for the cat’s contribution to surviving a fall, the scientist mentioned above, Etienne Marey, captured for the first time the motions of a cat in free fall.
Marey discovered that our feline friends have the fantastic ability to re-orient their bodies in mid-air. And, they do so very shortly into their fall – it is an instinctual reflex called the Cat Righting Reflex.
Here’s how it works.
The cat arches its body and pulls in its front legs while extending its rear legs. This has the effect of flipping the cat over with its legs extending down.
It works because the cat has a flexible body and, therefore, does not violate the Conservation of Angular Momentum as would a rigid object.
When the cat reaches terminal velocity and is no longer accelerating, it relaxes. Additionally, the cat assumes the position of a flying squirrel, thereby increasing wind resistance and buffering the impact.
When a cat falls from the zone of five to nine stories, it accelerates during the entire fall because it never reaches terminal velocity. Likewise, the cat doesn’t relax, so its ground impact is much greater than one falling from a greater height.
What about the cats who fall from the lower stories? They simply have not gained enough downward velocity to cause as much injury as the five to nine cats.
One cat in the study should have been named Lucky. She fell 42 stories, got right up, and walked down the sidewalk as though it was just a stroll in the park.
And, if you have a cat, take a moment to appreciate this furry friend who can survive what is not survivable for us humans.
However, there are several astounding exceptions.
A special thanks to Nick Brash for being such an alert climber – it probably saved my life. I hope that he is still out there “scratching around” on a rock.