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Sensitivity training (no, not that kind)

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a set of contrived and awkward exercises from the MOA’s Human Resources Department. While everyone benefits from greater empathy for the experiences of those unlike us, we’re here to talk about motorcycles! More specifically, how can we take advantage of a neuropsychological principle to ride more safely and competently?

First, the principle: Sensitization refers to the way we become more aware of elements in our perceptual field as a function of practice or heightened emotional relevance. If, for instance, we spend a lot of time working on mechanical projects, we develop the ability to discern the size of a bolt head simply by eyeballing it. As I was becoming adept at this, I might misjudge size by two millimeters in either direction, but now such errors are very rare; I typically reach for the correct socket or wrench on the first try without even thinking about it – at least in the 6-17 mm range with which I have the most practice. Or, as an example of emotional relevance, after purchasing a particular vehicle, I start seeing examples of the same model all over town. Of course, they had always been present, but they’d remained hidden to me until I had some personal investment prompting their “appearance.”

There’s a saying: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This is an (admittedly oversimplified) effort to articulate one aspect of brain plasticity. As certain circuits are repeatedly activated simultaneously, they seem to establish more numerous and more robust connections with each other, increasing the likelihood they’ll work in an integrated manner going forward. Simply exercising any circuit increases its readiness to fire the next time. (Conversely, connections fallen into disuse tend to get pruned.) Hence, associations develop between such things as perceptual inputs and muscular outputs (think eye-hand coordination), or pleasurable feelings and the experiential patterns preceding those feelings in the past (e.g. traversing the route to our local motorcycle shop feels vaguely exciting, whether or not we’re actually going there for a new bike). Extending this just a bit further, it’s easy to see how an alcoholic could become keenly aware of liquor store signs in what for someone else would be just a jumble of neon on a busy thoroughfare.

You can no doubt imagine a multitude of ways the principle of sensitization applies to motorcycling. Because we’re much more physically vulnerable than car drivers, it behooves us to constantly scan our environment for potential dangers. The fact said car drivers may also be unlikely (unsensitized) to notice our presence, gives rise to the maxim, “Ride like you’re invisible.” Not only is it of vital importance for us to be alert to threats, we also need to be proactively looking for possible escape routes should we suddenly need to take evasive action. Considering such adages as “we go where we look” and “go where the other vehicle isn’t”, we learn to direct our attention and gaze to the area behind a car crossing our path, rather than tracking it like a target. This is not our natural reflex, since we’re wired to keep our eyes on what might hurt us, lest we be taken by surprise. What could be a reasonably good strategy during a bear encounter doesn’t work as well in traffic; the motorcyclist’s brain requires some reconfiguration.

Fortunately, we have the ability to rewire ourselves. Sensitization is happening all the time, but we can deliberately cultivate sensitization to serve us while riding, using practice and accentuating emotional relevance to increase our detailed awareness of some things over others. Practice is simple and straightforward: the more regularly we scan for escape routes, for example, the more habitual and automatic such activity becomes, AND – here’s where sensitization comes in – the more attuned we are to escape routes as they crop up in our visual field. We begin to notice paths we’d have overlooked before and notice even more of them the longer we keep at it. Fine distinctions grow more obvious, like which option promises better traction or requires less extreme braking, and which gaps are expanding instead of contracting. We become escape route connoisseurs! The same mental acuity can be employed in determining the lesser of two evils when there is no real escape: better to head into the bushes than into a wall. If we’ve been systematically training our perceptual apparatus to attend to what is truly most important in our present situation (as opposed to what was expedient earlier in our evolution), we’re much more likely to have the needed awareness in the moment of an emergency, when there’s no time for contemplative study. We need the truly important stuff to pop out without lots of searching.

Where does emotional relevance fit in? Survival is a strong motivator. Short of death, we are also powerfully invested in avoiding excruciating pain, long-term disability, dire financial cost, and other heartbreaking losses. Obviously, all of these are possibilities in a crash, but we typically don’t spend much time or mental effort pondering them while riding. Doing so can paradoxically make these catastrophes more likely, with horrifying imagery distracting us from the operations demanding our full attention. Counterproductive fearfulness in turn makes us overly hesitant and/or reactive. Yet there’s a place for sober reminders of the gravity of life in the saddle. If only as a way of continually prompting us to resume our focus, we really can benefit from fleeting visions of disaster.

As an illustration, recall a bad experience you had while riding, an actual crash or a close call. Whatever you associate with that event has had extra salience for you ever since. One of my scariest memories on two wheels was (foolishly) trying to pass two cars at once on a narrow country road. As I pulled alongside the trailing car, it pulled over to pass the leading car, pushing me off the pavement on the opposite side of the road at speed. Luckily, the ground was smooth enough for me to maintain control, but I was mere inches away from a dense row of trees, and certain I was about to hit at least one of them. As you’d guess, that memory – and a bit of the terror accompanying it – leaps back into my awareness any time I get the urge to pass a string of pokey cars. In fact, it can return just from glancing over at a row of trees alongside the shoulder. It’s not disturbing enough to make me shudder or eclipse my attention to current reality, but in one millisecond I am thoroughly convinced of the impulse’s folly; the sense of mortal peril is now vividly baked into the perception of the situation, just like the pleasure of satisfying a terrible craving is inextricably part of the alcoholic’s perception of a liquor store sign. I cannot envision passing the trailing car without also envisioning it pulling over on me; I am sensitized to this risk because of the strong emotional charge linked to it in my history.

If we’ve had to use an escape route in the past, we’re more likely to be on the lookout for such “Plan Bs” on subsequent rides, and they stand out to us as a function of this emotionally driven preoccupation in the back of our mind. What if we have yet to need this contingency? If we must wait until after we’ve experienced life-threatening circumstances to be on the alert for those particular dangers, we might not live to reap the benefits. Visualization can help. By using our imagination to quickly play out scenarios in the continuously unfolding situation before us, we can intensify the emotional charge just enough to bolster the learning process. I approach an intersection, see an oncoming car that could turn left in front of me, picture it doing so, briefly feel the associated twinge of panic, and then chart a potential course around the car’s passenger side. Now I’m ready to take evasive action and ride to the space the car will be vacating if it does indeed turn in front of me.

In addition to having a formulated plan, I’ve strengthened the “mental muscles” for searching among my available options, reducing the time and effort necessary to visualize an escape route next time. Momentarily acknowledging my life is at stake cements the increased sensitivity. All of this happens in a few short seconds. While the process becomes more reflexively automatic with practice, we’re all vulnerable to attentional lapses. We need enough danger sensitivity to stay sharp, but not so much tension our enjoyment and concentration suffer.

The goal is optimal sensitization to a prioritized subset of the myriad sensory inputs bombarding us whenever we’re on two wheels. Some elements deserve keen awareness, while others can be ignored. Before you finished reading this sentence, you probably had no awareness of the sensation of your butt pressing into the furniture you’re resting upon. Having had your attention directed to it, now you feel it clearly. This information was available to you all along, but it wasn’t relevant and your brain efficiently devoted its limited resources to more important sensory inputs. Strategic sensitization is the deliberate training of our senses to notice what is most critical to our safety while riding. Escape routes, traction nuances, weather conditions, cues regarding nearby drivers’ imminent movements, and many other details are worthy of routine highlighting so our neurology will carry the day when conscious deliberation would be too slow to save us. What we don’t know (notice) really can hurt us.

Read Part 2 of this column, Habit-forming, now!

Photos from Pixabay (tools on wall, no other attribution) and Pexels (night traffic by Vherlyana Febritasari and New York City traffic by Craig Adderley).

Mark Barnes, PhD

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist's Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.