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What is 'Spidey Sense' and how do we develop it?

If you're anything of a fan, you'll know that when the bad guys are around, Spider-Man gets a "tingle" from his 'Spidey Sense'. And experienced riders will also report how they get a sixth sense that things aren't quite right, so they slow down, look around, just before something unpleasant happens, and thank their lucky stars for the warning. When that happens, we're developing a kind of biking Spidey Sense. As you have probably realised by now if you've read some of the other related articles, the design brief for our 200,000 year-old brain never included the ability to ride motorcycles, so we have to make considerable compromises to ride motorcycles. But what exactly is this 'sixth sense'? A quick lesson on how our brains are put together will help.

One model of the brain is the so-called 'triune' brain, because it consists of three parts.

At the top is the 'Thinking Cap', the Neo-Cortex which the most modern and largest part of the brain. In very simplistic terms it's where conscious thinking is performed and where our reasoning skills are centered.

At the bottom - it's directly connected to the spinal cord - is the most primitive part of our brain. It's sometimes called the 'Reptilian Brain' because we share it with crocodiles. Responsible for controlling many of the basic body functions, it's also 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.

Sitting between the two and hard-wired to both is the Mid-brain. Here the Reticular Activating System works with the Limbic System to control attention. This part of the brain works completely below the level of our awareness and acts as a filter on incoming data, attempting to pick out parts with meaning. You'll probably know how we can hear someone mentioning our name across a crowded room, and how that perks up our conscious attention. The same process goes on to filter relevant information from the vast amount of visual data sent to the brain by the eyes.

But in certain circumstances, the Mid-brain can also route data perceived as a potential threat straight to the Reptilian brain, which goes into automatic fight or flight mode. In biking terms, that's usually manifested as a panic grab at the brakes, freezing completely and target fixation. Recognise those reactions? You should, because these are the 'Survival Reactions' that Keith Code identified in Twist of the Wrist some years ago.

With the proviso that to learn, we need to survive, we can learn from emergencies. We may do some reflective thinking after the event and come up with a better option - why controlled braking is better than a panic grab, for example.

But it seems that scary incidents are also subconsciously 'logged' and become embedded. As we continue to ride, what seems to happen is that the Mid-brain continues to process the incoming data - remember, this is happening below the level of consciousness - but increasingly compares it against a database of stored memories, trying to find a match. The more riding experience we have, the bigger the database of past experiences and the more likely the Mid-brain is to find a match. If the past event had unpleasant consequences, then a "things aren't right" message gets sent to wake up the Neo-cortex. Just as hearing our name across the room flicks us into full-on attention, we're suddenly on full alert with Spidy Sense triggered.

Of course, it's not foolproof.

For starters, inexperienced riders don't have much experience to call on. So in novel circumstances, there is nothing alarming enough to trigger the Mid-brain to wake up the Neo-Cortex. We ride, totally oblivious, into danger. Only when the threat of personal harm becomes obvious enough is control turned over to the Reptilian brain - and that's when the panic responses kick in.

For a more experienced rider, there's a second issue. Although we are now on high alert, we're still only aware that things aren't quite right. That may help us to take some pro-active action - slowing down is nearly always a good first step - but it's no guarantee we'll respond appropriately.

Worse, we may be out of time before we finally identify the source of our anxiety. Analyses of accidents and in the laboratory suggest that it can take us two to three seconds to consciously turn our attention towards a developing threat, to analyse the situation and figure out what's happening, and come up with a solution. 200,000 years ago, that might have been acceptable, but on modern roads and travelling at a very modest 30mph, it's an age. We've covered forty metres in three seconds. So out of time, the Mid-brain may hand over control to the Reptilian brain. We're no better off than the novice rider who never saw the threat coming.

A partial solution is to create 'muscle memory' pathways to defeat the Survival Reactions. Despite the name, the links we build are really in the brain, but they do control muscles. For example we can learn to overcome the instinctive front brake grab when a car pulls out, or the frozen steering when we're running wide on a corner, by 'burning' learned responses. And we do that by mastering, then regularly practising, techniques such as progressively squeezing the brakes and controlled swerves. The idea is that even when the Reptilian brain tries to take over, we don't let it totally control our reactions.

But there's one more thing to think about. The trigger for the Reptilian brain to kick in is often motion detection in our peripheral vision, which is incredibly sensitive to movement. If we suddenly detect movement close at hand, swerving the other way can save the day. But it's essentially a 'reactive' response, after the problem has developed.

The clearly-focussed, colour cone of vision which allows us to see sharp detail is a very narrow, just a few degrees wide. If we only look at the road ahead of us, we won't gain information about hazards left or right of our path. So we need to be PRO-ACTIVE with our observation, keeping our eyes moving so we are actively searching out potential hazards before they become bigger threats that tingle our Spidey Sense.

By developing 'situational awareness' we reduce the chances of having to rely on Spidey Sense too often. And then we give ourselves a MUCH better chance of avoiding triggering the Reptilian brain's panic reactions. Find out how to develop situational awareness of a Survival Skills advanced motorcycle training course.

Kevin Williams
Survival Skills Rider Training

...because it's a jungle out there


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What is Survival Skills all about?

How are Survival Skills Courses put together and taught?
The Making of a Good Instructor - musings on my Driver Education course

Would a National Standard for advanced training be appropriate?
Writing a riding tip - what detail is necessary?
What to do if you've had an accident
Accident Statistics - dispelling some myths

Improver or advanced, pragmatism or perfection?
Piling on the miles
Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills
Countersteering - Question and Answer

Braking Rules and Tips
Over-confidence and Riding at the Limit
Practice makes Perfect
The Danger of Misunderstanding
Learning from your Mistakes
A Moment of Inattention
Staying Warm
Staying Awake
Don't just ride for yourself, ride for others
Filtering - what's legal and how to do it
Cornering Problems 1 - Lean or Brake?
Springing into Summer - polishing off the winter rust
Group Riding - Rules and Tips
Awareness of Risk and Risk Management
Cornering Problems 4 - Stability and the "Point and Squirt" technique
Cornering Problems 3 - Staying out of trouble! Pro-active Braking or Acceleration Sense?
Cornering Problems 2 - Staying out of trouble
What is Risk?
Avoiding Diesel
The Vanishing Point - is it enough?
Posture - the key to smoother riding
When the Two Second Rule is not enough
Riding in the Dark
Roundabouts - straight lines, stability and safety
Slow Speed Control
Aquaplaning - what it is and how to deal with it
Rear Observation - when to & when not to!
Staying upright on icy roads
KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' or Low Effort Biking
Overtaking Safety - avoiding vehicles turning right
Proactive versus Reactive Riding
Living with  Lifesavers
Which Foot? The Hendon Shuffle - Question and Answer
Carrying a passenger - Question and Answer
Riding in the rain
Riding in strong winds
Sorry Mate, I didn't see you - an analysis of SMIDSY accidents
Ever gone into a corner too hot and had it tighten up on you?
The Point & Squirt approach to corners
A time to live...
Target Fixation - Question and Answer
The Lurker, the Drifter and the Trimmer
The five most important things I learned as a courier
Overtaking - Questions and Answers
Precision riding - or keeping it simple?
Wide lines, tight lines, right lines - the law of Diminishing Returns
Surface Attraction
Euphoria - when your riding is just too good to be true
Straight line -vs- trail braking
Sit back, close your eyes, relax... and hope for the best
Before you overtake, do you...?
Do you need to blip the throttle on a downshift?
Holiday Riding Tips 1 - Dealing with hairpins (a new occasional series)
Holiday Riding Tips 2 - The (drive on the) Right Stuff
Why SMIDSYs happen
Avoiding dehydration - riding in hot weather
Riding errors - and avoiding them
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness - riding in fog
Where does Point and Squirt come from?
Overtaking - lifesavers and following distances
Offsiding - what is it, and why you should think before you do it!
Anger Management - dealing with "red mist" and "road rage"
That indefinable gloss
Overtaking on left-handers - experts only or best avoided?
Apex or Exit - what's important when cornering?

Developing 'Spidy Sense'

Armchair Riding - how to improve summer skills in winter

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 1

Working towards a BTEC in post-test instruction part 2

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