I’ve been collecting people’s experiences about this for a while. When people find themselves in an optionless, life-threatening situation (such a sliding on ice toward an oncoming truck, or skidding toward the edge of a cliff on a motorcycle), they will commonly describe the experience of having all their memories present at once. This is not so much a cinematographic “flashing” of their life before their eyes, but instead a simultaneously present “panorama” of memories. And not necessarily big, important memories, but instead small, banal, perhaps meaningless ones. How can we understand what’s going on here?
First, in the 1950s, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield stimulated the temporal lobe of patients undergoing brain surgery, and he discovered that a little buzz of electricity in the right spot in the temporal lobe could trigger a vividly experienced memory—such as standing in a parking lot speaking with someone, or listening to a particular symphony. So we know the memories are stored in there. When the brain is driven into an extraordinary situation of impending doom, it moves out of its normal operating range and somehow all these memories bubble into conscious awareness. It may well be that the brain is ‘searching’ for any possible solution to a very bad problem, and in its desperation pulls out all the stops. I see panoramic memory as a terrific inroad into understanding consciousness.