Developing 'Spidy Sense'

If you're anything of a fan, you'll know that when the bad guys are around, Spiderman gets a "tingle" from his 'Spidy Sense'.

Likewise, experienced riders often talk about getting 6th sense things aren't quite right, so they slow down, look around, just before something unpleasant happens, and thank their lucky stars for the warning.

What they are developing is a biking version of Spidy Sense. It appears to be a mixture of movement detection to which peripheral vision is incredibly sensitive, plus subconscious pattern recognition that allows the rider to react to a shape without actually thinking "large metal box + driver  = van".

A quick lesson on how your brain is put together is in order to understand this further.

The largest part of the brain is the Neo-Cortex where conscious thinking and reasoning skills are centred. But hard-wired to it are two other important components.

The most primitive part of our brain is sometimes called the Reptilian brain, because we share it with crocodiles. It's directly connected to the spinal cord and responsible for controlling many of the basic body functions, as well as being constantly on guard for danger. It's blisteringly quick in responding - it needs to be if we're to duck when someone hurls a rock at our head - but it doesn't think. It only chooses the most basic fight or flight responses that suited our remote ancestors.

In the Mid-brain, the Reticular Activating System works with the Limbic System to control attention. It filters incoming data from our senses, picking out important pieces of information and bringing them into consciousness - perhaps someone mentioning our name in a noisy room - including the vast amount of visual information sent to the brain by the eyes.

Under normal riding circumstances, the Mid-brain detects everything is okay and tells the Reptilian brain to 'stand down', and we can carry on with our Neo-cortex working on creative thinking, learning from new experiences and generally having fun. But should the Mid-brain detect anything it perceives as a threat, then communication between the Mid-brain and the Neo-cortex is shut down derailing conscious thought. Control is handed to the Reptilian brain, which can switch into automatic 'Fight or Flight' mode, at which point we usually overreact or freeze. Recognise that situation?

When riders experience Spidy Sense, what seems to happen is that the Mid-brain processes incoming information subconsciously, compares the real-time situation with a database of stored memories, and tries to find a match, at the same time waking up the Neo-cortex to the problem so we can consciously decide what to do next.

Inexperienced riders won't have many memories to call on, so if the situation doesn't match anything in the database, the Mid-brain might wake them up to think about the problem. Or it might not, in which case they don't do anything at all, right up to the moment that the Mid-brain detects a threat to their safety and turns over control to the Reptilian brain - at which point frequent panic responses are to freeze or grab the brakes and fall off!


As we add riding experience, Spidy Sense has a bigger and bigger database to look at, so usually the Mid-brain finds a past event that had unpleasant consequences and sends a "things aren't quite right" message to the Neo-cortex. That can still be useful, particularly in a unique situation we haven't experienced before - just the high level of alertness may allow us to respond correctly - but it's a vague warning and we may not react in time.

The problem is that even after our "wake up call" that tells us something doesn't look right is passed to the Neo-cortex, we may not react quickly enough in a rapidly developing situation - it can take two to three seconds for Neo-cortex to look, analyse the situation and figure out what's happening, and come up with a solution. Compared with the Reptilian brain, the Neo-cortex is slow, very very slow. It's worth remembering how far we travel in three seconds even at a very modest 30mph - it's 40 metres. Now work out how far you travel at 90mph in that time! By the time we've worked out what the problem is, the Mid-brain might have detected the threat and handed control back to the Reptilian brain so that we're no better off than that novice rider, and we might still react in surprise!

A partial solution is to "burn" a learned pathway in the brain that overcomes instinctive 'fight or flight' responses to danger and respond correctly. Think back to that flung rock that we were ducking. Turn it into a cricket ball, and think how we can learn to catch it without thinking. Back on the bike, we can modify the instinctive pathways by mastering and regularly practising techniques such as covering and progressively squeezing the brakes, sounding the horn, and swerving away from danger, so that even when reacting in a hurry, we don't let the Reptilian brain take over completely.

But we're far more likely to get the right rapid response if we're ready and paying attention to what we are doing. Back to the cricket analogy - it's necessary to focus on the game, not doze off in the sun, if we are going to catch that ball. Likewise on the bike, we'll do far better if we know what to look for and how to look for it. However, there's a limit to how hard we can concentrate and how many things we can focus on at the same time - overload our thinking Neo-cortex and we'll quite likely make the wrong decision anyway.

So it's good news to find that Spidy Sense can be trained to recognise "trigger events" so that the Mid-brain wakes up the Neo-cortex and sets off the correct train of responses automatically.

As suggested, most but not all of these trigger events are "visual cues" - shape of road signs, colour of traffic and movement of vehicles on a collision course, but we usually change gear by listening to the motor and we'll detect a skid or slide by feel through the seat of our pants.

It's not difficult to learn this skill once it's understood. For instance, we can teach ourselves to recognise road signs by slowing down a bit and consciously scanning for their predictable shapes using our thinking mind, the Neo-cortex. Virtually within minutes, the triangular shape is catalogued as the brain adds the visual cue to the 'database' of shapes. In just a day or two, the pathway burns itself into our unconscious mind and the mid-brain takes over the recognition job from our real-time brain, triggering the response of flicking our eyes to looking directly at the sign so we start seeing, and more importantly reading, road signs all over the place, and leaving the decision making Neo-cortex free to decide what to do about the hazard.

Better yet, we can program in an automatic response in terms of what we do with the bike too.

If you doubt this, think of your response to a traffic light - you don't have to consciously search for a metal pole with three lights balanced on it at a junction, and then remember red for stop, green for go. You just respond by braking to the visual cues of the junction and the shape of traffic light and the red colour shown automatically. Only in your very earliest days on the road did you actually have to look, spot and think. And perhaps most tellingly, for an experienced rider/driver the time you are most likely to make a cock-up at a traffic light is when it changes to amber now you have to make a conscious decision whether to go or stop - and how often do you hesitate and make a mess of it? Far more often than you run a red light or stop at a green one!

We can learn to do program our brain to respond to all sorts of other situations or hazards. I don't consciously think 'blind entrance', 'lurking car', 'slippery-looking surface' anymore than I think 'red and white triangular sign displaying an '+' equals crossroads sign', I just see the visual cue and react accordingly. Likewise, a hazard that might make me slow automatically triggers a "what's behind" thought.

However, because the focussed view of the eye is a very narrow cone, if all we ever do is stare at the road directly ahead, we simply won't see the signs even if we are looking. And if we don't see it, we won't add it to our database. So, for developing riders, consciously using a scanning technique (and going slow enough to be COMFORTABLE using scanning) is just as important as knowing what to look for.

For some reason many riders think this learning process is difficult or not something they need to do. But learning to respond to visual cues is easy to practice, easy to get good results from and one of the most powerful techniques available to us.

Don't take my word for it - Barbara Alam comments: "I've got a lot better at that since doing your course. It really didn't take more than a day or two of practice, with the occasional effort to "revise" by consciously doing it, to make it become an unconscious thing".

To be continued...