BMW Owners News
ContributorsThe Ride Inside

Can’t help they can’t help (Part 2)

First, read Part One for an introduction to this topic. Then see if you recognize people you know (or yourself!) in the following descriptions.

“Clumsy.” These folks may lack eye-hand coordination and/or have trouble processing visual-spatial relationships. They can have poor awareness of where their bodies are in space and regularly miscalculate where muscular actions will send their limbs and digits. They trip, drop things, bump into them, knock them over. They’re “hard on things;” their possessions (and sometimes their bodies) are always banged up and prematurely worn out. Others may view them as careless, and they may have developed a compensatory ethos wherein they view others as overly concerned with material things, but the real underlying issue is substandard connections in neural networks supporting coordinated muscular activity and visual processing. Practice might improve such connections, but some of us start way behind the pack and can’t catch all the way up.

Related to clumsiness is deficient situational awareness: how many variables a person can track and take into consideration simultaneously. If I’m carrying a long board through a doorway, I can only look at one end of it at a time. I must imagine the other end’s position and its relation to the door frame, nearby walls, other people, and objects in my path. Can I monitor enough of these at once to avoid any collisions? If I’m working in the garage with bike parts all over the floor, will I step back onto one of them behind me, or recall its position and maintain an accurate sense of where I am in relation to it—or at least think to turn my head and refresh my mental image? Can I keep proper tension on the tool in my right hand while rotating the part in my left and watching elsewhere for the indication everything is aligned? People with difficulties in this area aren’t necessarily unable to do the processing involved, they just can’t do many layers in parallel.

Some folks have uncanny perceptual abilities—they see things others don’t. There’s little or no thinking involved; the information is immediately apparent to them in the image, itself. An engineer once told me he’d always intuitively “seen” the load paths through objects, but only realized what these were after he studied physics. A skilled rider looks at a rock garden or set of curves and instantly sees a good line, whereas a novice sees only a confusing jumble of possibilities (at best). While some of these perceptual strengths are a function of learning, others seem to be innate or were learned so early they might as well be. Either way, not all of us possess them. Whether better classified as ignorance or neurological weakness, there are many things to which a thoroughly well-intentioned helper may be utterly blind. A general category is not seeing “accidents waiting to happen.” They sit a bottle on a precarious ledge, lay something down where it’s likely to get stepped on by the next person entering the room, or leave drained coolant where the dog could drink it. They don’t take basic physical factors like balance, gravity, leverage, momentum, and material properties into account, so things they place in the truck bed scrape, snag, and crash into each other during transport.

A better “sighted” person sees the potential disasters implicit in these scenarios, and automatically sets things down on their most stable sides, arranges items so they brace each other and won’t surprise/pose a danger to someone else or be easily damaged by readily anticipated forces, like the weight of something resting on them. They expect to need reminding where things go during reassembly, prompting them to take pictures or make notes during disassembly, and keep detached parts organized to avoid future confusion. Some of this may have been “learned the hard way,” but it seems a fundamental capacity for prediction is required and some people lack it, even when they’ve been “taught” those hard lessons lots of times in the past.

People can also lack basic organization. Visit their home and nothing is ever in the same place twice. They’re perpetually losing (and searching) for things, frequently put objects in their own way, and have great difficulty making and following plans or doing things in the proper sequence. They regularly leave tasks incompletely done because they didn’t proceed systematically and missed steps. All items are positioned askew, without any awareness of, or concern for, the aesthetics, efficiency, or utility of alignment. Drawers and cabinet doors are left ajar, tools are strewn randomly across the workbench, and they’re rarely, if ever, on time. It’s easy to write off such people as “slobs” (or worse), but that doesn’t explain anything. While many such people have indeed given up on trying to maintain order, it may not simply reflect disinterest, but rather their sense of futility. When the brain circuits responsible for organization are largely offline, willpower isn’t enough to make up for their absence. Understandably, people like this can despair at some point, and perhaps even embrace chaos as a contrarian virtue, considering everyone more organized than themselves “OCD.” Everything they touch is left in disarray, and they can easily make messes faster than you can clean them up.

Often overlapping with organizational deficits are attentional deficits. Some people are easily distracted by external stimuli (SQUIRREL!!) and/or internal stimuli (feelings, tangential thoughts, daydreams). They tend to grow bored very quickly and find repetitive tasks excruciatingly arduous – their anguish in such situations is much more intense than the sense of tedium experienced by the unafflicted. Although ADHD has certainly been over-diagnosed in some cases, it is a real neurological impairment. Tragically, the most common variant involves a paradoxical dynamic in which the harder the person tries to pay attention, the worse it gets. What are people with ADHD routinely told by others who don’t understand what they’re dealing with? Pay attention! Try harder! You don’t have to be a psychologist to imagine the looping negative consequences here. Obviously, a helper with limited attentional capacity will pose problems on projects requiring sustained concentration, but demanding something they can’t provide is likely to produce even worse results.


High levels of anxiety or constitutional hyper-sensitivity/reactivity can create counterproductive urgency. A helper who realizes they’ve made a mistake, doesn’t understand an instruction, or feels at a loss in a situation may begin frantically and haphazardly “problem-solving” in ways which only compound the problem. They desperately want to get it right, but their approach is too impulsive and impatient to yield success. Alternatively, they may have outsized reactions to sensory inputs, startling easily, jerking their hand away from something that’s merely warm, or flinging a tool across the garage as they recoil from contact with an unfamiliar texture. Their central nervous systems are always cranked up to 11, and they can’t just decide to turn down the volume. True, they might learn better self-regulation, but that’s extremely hard to do. Their exaggerated reactions seem so unnecessary from the outside, we may insist they calm down while not understanding they’d have already done so if they could.

Interpersonal coordination can be hampered by weak communication skills caused by poorly functioning neural networks mediating verbal and non-verbal interpretation and expression. People can also be out of sync due to disparate systems of logic and reasoning, secondary to numerous neurological, psychological, or experiential factors. If two people have “different ways of doing things,” they might be able to choose one for the project at hand, but what if the helper thinks in fundamentally illogical ways, or their reasoning is distorted by serious misconceptions? This is a terrible dilemma, as their thinking problems may not be apparent until the damage is done and nobody will have seen it coming. This could be a function of genuine, albeit subtle, psychosis, but even sane people have some really crazy notions. Take a casual survey of your acquaintances and see how many think tire tread grips the road by digging into it. Sure, some mechanical operations will be opaque to the uninitiated, but there are lots of examples wherein people simply haven’t thought things through. If you ask those who believe tire tread digs into the pavement, “Which is harder, rubber or asphalt?,” they’ll probably revise their answer. All of us carry around countless ideas we’ve never checked against reality or the stringent principles of logic, where they’d quickly run aground. Such unquestioned beliefs can be amusing, but not when you discover your helper just lubed your chain with JB Weld to make it stronger, or filled your crankcase with coolant to fix your overheating problem.

This list is by no means exhaustive. My point is this: intrinsic, foundational or meta-level cognitive and behavioral processes can malfunction to various degrees due to a wide range of disturbances and deficiencies in a person’s neural “wiring.” These are often mistaken as intentional or moral issues, with interpersonal conflict escalating quickly as a result. I don’t mean everyone who exhibits such limitations should just be given a “free pass” and relieved of all responsibility. As a practical matter, everyone needs to work on ways to compensate for their weaknesses. If my memory is poor, I need to make lists; if my sense of direction is lousy, I need to use GPS; etc. While it would be unfair to hold people accountable for weaknesses they didn’t choose and cannot control, it is fair to expect them to take their weaknesses seriously and seek help or develop workarounds—or at least alert you to their limits as they understand them before you open up that transmission (though their self-assessment may be unavoidably incomplete and contain errors).

When seeking assistance, we should be slow to judge a less competent person’s intentions and character, and quick to consider the possibility they really may not be able to do what we need. Otherwise, we may stand to lose friends and ruin projects.

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.