Tabula rasa

How people turn out has been debated for eons. Are we born with certain characteristics predisposing us to various ways of thinking, feeling, behaving and relating (nature)—or do we start off as “blank slates,” etched by our unique histories of lived experience (nurture)? If the latter, can those etchings be erased and rewritten by subsequent encounters with the world? These are profoundly fundamental questions about humanity; any person’s answer will underpin their position on countless issues related to individual responsibility, social influences, and our ability to change. Compelling arguments exist on both sides, but this is a false dichotomy. We’re shaped by both constitutional and experiential factors; it’s untenably reductionistic to choose one side or the other.

Listen to this column as Episode 12 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; this episode doesn’t include a Q&A session. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing

I’m content to think of myself and others as being made of varying types of clay, which react differently to infinite variations in handling and time in the kiln, and generally become less malleable over time. Another analogy would be, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”—as long as we acknowledge different trees grow differently based on their species and larger environment, too.

I was reminded of these timeless issues while chatting with two old friends—they’re semi-old and long-time friends—about their experiences becoming motorcyclists relatively late in life. One was a close neighbor at the time and got the bulk of his riding instruction from me, although he took several formal training courses as well. The other lived further away when he began riding and used me as a long-distance consultant on bikes, gear, and rider education options. Not long ago, the second guy completed two extremely challenging police-style maneuvering classes, and has acquired skills in his six years of riding I still lack after five decades as a motorcyclist. There may be hope for me yet, since I’m barely as old now as he was when he started!

Having observed their development as riders from near and far, what stood out to me was their openness to learning. In sharp contrast to the (often true) adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” these dogs were deeply into middle age when they first swung a leg over a motorcycle, yet they acquired new skills with remarkable speed. I’ve taught plenty of pups how to ride. While the young possess certain physical advantages (faster reflexes, impressive stamina, seemingly innate Olympic-level balance and coordination), they’re often not interested in being told how to do things. Instead, they prefer to hurl themselves at new tasks haphazardly, testing what appear to be random, chaotic actions to “figure out” on their own what works. I put “figure out” in quotes because this process isn’t as intellectual as that phrase implies. Such kids appear to be born with a proclivity toward wild experimentation and a penchant for bodily learning, wherein riding techniques are developed by a process of elimination; they start with all possible actions and prune this vast collection down based on numerous crashes. Their slates get etched in the school of hard knocks. Good thing their injuries tend to heal quickly.

Older new riders, by contrast, typically wish to avoid paying this type of tuition for their education and attend more closely to advice on technique in hopes of avoiding contact with the ground. Some of these folks are done with the project after a single parking lot tip-over, so averse are they to the risk of injury or expensive damage to their machines. Others, however, are quite tenacious. Not only do they persevere through the inevitable early drops, but they have another characteristic you might think would be an absolute delight to their teacher – they are intent on following instructions with exacting, literal precision. This can be a mixed blessing.

I once saw a cartoon in which a boss sat wide-eyed at his desk, pulling his hair out and screaming at his secretary, “OH NO!! YOU DID IT JUST LIKE I TOLD YOU!” I sometimes felt this way while teaching the first of the aforementioned friends. I would describe a technique and he would execute it exactly as I said. It was a bit like writing computer code: any sloppiness in my wording could produce an error or crash. As a neophyte, he couldn’t assess what I told him and apply fuzzy logic, interpreting slightly ambiguous or inconsistent guidance with a sort of corrective internal spellcheck (if you pretend spellcheck actually works). I had to be deliberate and circumspect in how I put things, which was good practice for me as a teacher, but the stakes were uncomfortably high with so blank a slate. This is one reason people should seek professional instruction, wherein countless hours have been devoted to systematically eliminating such fumbles from the language employed.

Not only did this student’s lack of accumulated knowledge make it impossible for him to apply his own critical thinking to what I told him, he also lacked any prior exposure to the dangers of riding and was virtually fearless—not as a function of bravery, but of simple naivete. He completely trusted my guidance, and assumed he was at no significant risk if he followed it. Hence, he frequently amazed me with how easily he performed certain tasks—things many other trainees would initially balk at, questioning their validity or (more often) feeling too anxious to try. There were moments I felt like the boss in that cartoon as I watched with horror as my friend did precisely as he was told, but in the process exceeded my own level of daring. Having more to go on, my alarm bells went off sooner than his. Ironically, he sometimes demonstrated to me the efficacy of certain techniques I’d been taught and had relayed to him, though I didn’t feel comfortable implementing to the degree he did. I never encouraged him to push the envelope like that. He didn’t or couldn’t realize he was so close to the edge, and I kept overestimating how scary things would be to him because they were so obviously scary to me. His spills were fortunately rare and minor. I’m still torn over whether his fearlessness was more of an asset or liability as he learned.

Those extra-exuberant youngsters resisted strictly disciplined exercises in favor of visceral thrills, with skill development occurring as a byproduct. Yes, they heard the explanations of clutch friction zones and body positioning, but those words provided only the flimsiest scaffolding for assembling a body (literally!) of knowledge comprised of myriad real-life experiential reference points regarding what works and doesn’t. Data collected this way has many advantages, if you can survive the slippery, rocky, rutted learning curve. Eventually, it allows for split-second interpolation and extrapolation in novel situations, accomplished in parts of the brain—as Ray often described Tom on “Car Talk”—unencumbered by the thought process. It’s astonishing how such early learning persists, too, with reflexive habits, good or bad, still in place decades later. Muscle memory works much faster than logical analysis, although putting actions into words allows us to utilize higher-level analysis in pursuit of further progress.

Mature students make more use of their wits, as one might hope. There’s certainly a lot to be said for learning from others’ mistakes instead of our own. If we discover people crash when they do X and don’t when they do Y, then of course we should pick Y. On the other hand, something valuable is lost in purely cerebral submission to prefabricated procedure. What if nobody ever spelled out what to do in this particular situation? When our own judgment isn’t exercised, we know things only because we were told, not because we confirmed them via our own testing, and therefore lack the gut-level confidence that comes from direct, concrete verification instead of blind faith. I’m definitely not suggesting anyone should go out and deliberately prove to themselves it’s a bad idea to ride with underinflated tires, a hefty blood-alcohol level, or a ball cap instead of a helmet. There are ways in which experience is the best teacher, but it doesn’t have to be the only teacher. Some lessons are too costly to learn the hard way, other things may never occur to us in a million years on the basis of our solo research. Also, no matter how diligently we may try to follow an instructor’s guidance, our muscles don’t respond with perfect accuracy to our mental commands—they only learn through a series of successively closer approximations, some of which may be inadequate to avoid a spill; we can’t completely avoid trial-and-error learning on the way to skill mastery. Despite fierce determination to do what he was told, the second fellow mentioned above cracked valve covers on his R 1150 RT while honing his low-speed skills during those two advanced training courses—one side for each enrollment!

A couple of other late bloomers occasionally shocked me with their willingness to unquestioningly do as I advised, but most were less immediately compliant than that first friend above. While I had to work harder to get them to try something, it was also a relief to have their resistance as a buffer; I felt less deadly responsible for their every move and welcomed their questions—better to discover I’d been unclear before they pulled away. Of course, the vast majority of new riders fall somewhere in between the extremes of completely eschewing and completely obeying instruction. They may all be blank slates in terms of riding knowledge, but they’ve already formed critically relevant attitudes toward authority, physical risk, and the learning process. Alongside any information a teacher may have to offer, there are also vitally important interpersonal dynamics. Not every teacher is a good match for every student, and some mismatches may preclude the transmission of knowledge, no matter how accurate.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount from informal one-on-one tutoring by generous riding buddies on local roads and trails, and I’ve passed along knowledge in the same way. There’s no substitute, though, for the structured, concentrated, carefully tuned programs of formal riding instruction available all over the country and to riders of every stripe. Different schools have varying approaches, some of which conflict with each other, but learning from multiple teachers allows a student to try on a variety of options and find which methods work best for them, their bikes, and their kind of riding. Let’s all get our slates etched and re-etched on a regular basis.

(Editor’s Note: The MOA Foundation provides, through the Paul B. Grant program, funds for any motorcyclist to apply towards any sanctioned motorcycle training course. MOA members can receive a $250 grant; any other rider may receive a $100 grant. For more information and how to apply, visit and click on Paul B.)

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.

One thought on “Tabula rasa

  • Hey Mark, whether by study or intuition, you’re right! The old questions of nature/nurture have been shown to be BOTH, in the field called epigenetics. Wonderful application of some basic science!

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