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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.
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