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ADV PreppingYou May Not Know It But Your Brain Is Wired To Crash

You May Not Know It But Your Brain Is Wired To Crash

 Improving your skill and safety as a rider requires partially rewiring your brain.

Published on 01.20.2017

You may be reluctant to admit this, but you are physiologically wired to react in such a way that will contribute to a motorcycle accident. What I am describing is a cocktail of established, yet unconscious reactions in times of stress, such as the moments leading up to a wreck. These tendencies are something that every tenured rider has encountered and has been forced to address.

As you read on, you may realize that some of the things I describe have happened to you before. Maybe it led to a crash or just a close call. The good news is, there are steps you can take to rewire your brain so that you can help yourself avoid these types of situations. But first, let’s go through a stressful scenario:

You are riding the trails with some local fast guys and you’re stoked because you are holding your own. You’re excited and pushing your limits a bit to keep up. Ahead you see a tight, sandy turn coming up. The guys in front negotiate the corner just fine, but you enter with too much speed. Suddenly, you realize you’re going too fast and you begin to panic. You try to think of what to do next but your options are dwindling by the millisecond. You take in a gulp of air, grab the bars with all your might and tense all your muscles as your eyes stay locked on the fast-approaching rocky hillside. In a last ditch effort to scrub speed, you instinctively stomp on the brakes causing the bike to slide uncontrollably sideways. All you can do is brace for impact as you and your precious bike barrel into the hillside in a big cloud of dust.


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Adventure Motorcycle Accident Prevention

Sound familiar somehow? The scenario may have played out for you on the road or the trail. What I’d like to highlight in the example above are three unfavorable reactions to stress: the effects of Adrenaline, Target Fixation, and the tendency to get hard on the (rear) brakes due to Muscle Memory.

Physiologically – It’s Natural

Let’s go back to anatomy class for a moment. During significant stress, your body dumps adrenaline into your blood stream. The effects are instantaneous. Adrenaline acts as a fuel for either engaging with, or running from the immediate threat in front of you. You may know of it as the fight or flight response; it has evolved to deal with the myriad of threats upon our evolutionary journey.

A long time ago, the threat could’ve been a saber-toothed tiger, for example. In these moments, adrenaline causes the eyes to dilate, taking in as much light as possible. The heart speeds up and muscles tense; they consume a lot of oxygen and sugar because they are going to need the energy to either fight the threat, or run away from it.

Fast-forward to today; there are no more saber-toothed tigers running around but our bodies are still hard-wired from millions of years of evolution to respond to panic and stress the exact same way. And that’s a big problem if you ride a motorcycle…

With the sudden onset of stress, fine motor control flies out the window and what’s worse; your now dilated pupils are gazing at the very thing you don’t want to hit! It can also cause you to hold your breath — your diaphragm paralyzed with fear. Adrenaline can make you react in exactly the wrong way, increasing the likelihood of a motorcycle accident. That is, if you don’t acclimate yourself to operating while under its influence.

Rule #1 You Go Where You Look

Adventure Motorcycle Accident Prevention

Reg Pridmore, former AMA road-racing champion and founder of CLASS riding school once told me to “unVelcro” my eyes from the edge of the track where I’d gone off a few times. That’s exactly what it feels like. As if you have to physically tear your eyes from what you want to avoid (the threat) and move them over to a “safe path” — smoothly around the obstacle, via a path that you’ve created with your vision — all while firmly ignoring distractions such as rocks, ruts and anything or anyone on the trail. By doing this, you are redirecting the mind’s natural fixation on the threat to something safe.

This is a direct contradiction for your brain in these instances, and is initially difficult for some, but once mastered you will attain command over your eyes, and with that, the ability to control your motorcycle when you need it the most. Of course, a relaxed grip on the controls and fluid body movement both lend themselves to successfully avoiding a collision. The key is controlled and correct repetition in panic braking and obstacle avoidance prior to, NOT at the time of the incident.

Breaking the Bad Habits of Braking

Many motorcyclists tend to drive a 4-wheeled vehicle regularly. Although some would argue that motorcyclists make the best car drivers, being a cager the majority of the time brings with it some unconscious habits that can be detrimental once we hop on a bike.

The increased maneuverability and acceleration of a motorcycle provides us with special advantages over cars in avoiding accidents. Depending on the situation, one can either decelerate quickly with powerful brakes, counter steer around an obstacle or accelerate away from a forming threat. Unfortunately, in a car, heavy braking is the primary method of accident avoidance.

If you don’t ride often enough, it may take time to fully realize the escape options that open up by being on two-wheels. Moreover, if you drive a car on a regular basis, most likely your right foot is already hard-wired to depress the brake pedal in times of stress. And that tendency does not go away as soon as you throw a leg over a bike. It translates directly into what many riders do when they believe a crash is imminent; they stomp down the right foot (rear brake) just as they would in their car. On a bike, this translates into a locked rear wheel and subsequent slide that may lead you to hit the exact threat you are trying to avoid.

Many motorcyclists only discover this after their first encounter in a panic-brake situation. Mastery of the rear brake is imperative if you want to ride a motorcycle at a high level (but that’s separate topic). De-emphasizing the braking reflex and reestablishing fine motor control to the right foot in times of stress is not something to be practiced in panic situations. It is to be practiced on a track, in a riding school, parking lot, a remote dirt road, etc. Again, repetition through proper practice.

So, What can I do? – Audit yourself

Adventure Motorcycle Accident Prevention

Next time you have a sphincter-clinching moment, try to recall the events leading up to and during the incident.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

• Did your eyes stay locked on the threat?
• Did you target fixate or maintain an open field of vision during the incident?
• Were you able to unlock your eyes and redirect them toward a safe target path?
• How did your body react? Did you tense up or hold your breath?
• How ‘fluid’ was your brain in the moment? Did you panic and mentally ‘lock up’?
• Were you able to remain calm and consciously react or were you riding scared?
• Did the accident ‘come of out nowhere’? Were you looking far enough ahead?

 
Adventure Motorcycle Crash Prevention

It would be misleading to suggest that one can ‘manufacture’ a correct response to a stressful or threatening riding situation. There is no substitute for experience. Analyzing how you responded to the unexpected, as well as an honest assessment of the frequency of those moments where you felt both scared and out of control, will tell you just how much you are operating safely and proficiently.

I cannot stress enough the value of receiving instruction from an established motorcycle training school that has both the instructors and facilities that allow you to explore your limits, and the limits of the motorcycle, in a controlled setting. By analyzing your mistakes and becoming more aware of them, you’ll be less likely to react in the same way the next time a dangerous situation occurs. You’ll be able to keep from reacting automatically with your ‘fight or flight’ system and replace that with a better response learned through training and controlled repetition.

Hopefully by learning about these innate tendencies we all possess, it may help you avoid a dangerous motorcycle accident in the future. And in recognizing your own involuntary reactions to stress, understanding your natural tendencies, as well as the origins of bad habits, you can work to improve your riding proficiency both on and off the pavement.

Author: Sharif Massoud

Sharif has been a 911 paramedic since 2001 and has worked for both Ventura and Los Angeles counties. As a paramedic, his duties have allowed him to work in an ambulance, SAR Helicopter and motorcycle detail. He is currently a sweep-rider and head paramedic for RawHyde Adventures, and is also a Clinical Instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Author: Sharif Massoud
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17 thoughts on “You May Not Know It But Your Brain Is Wired To Crash

  1. Very good article! I learned about target fixation years ago while ski racing. You really will hit obstacles you fixate on. You must condition yourself to look beyond to the next gate or turn and you’ll flow through the course.

    • Hello Sayyed. RawHyde Advertising? You might take note that the link to “motorcycle training schools” on the story has a list of numerous options with over 20 off-road training schools from around the world.

      • Thank you for mentioning that. I am not of fan of trolls who don’t contribute. The only mention of Rawhyde is in the guy’s bio and in your related story links. Keep up the good work!

  2. Can relate to target fixation. I am absolutely convinced by focusing on the way out instead where I was going which was a certain crash is what saved me. I was amazed how quickly my mind worked the problem that had 4 possibilities but only 1 potential way out, with risks. After evaluating them all in literally milliseconds and by focusing on the one solution and ignoring the rest I made it safely.

  3. Great article! Love your writing style. I’ve encountered these scenarios over the past nearly 40 years of riding. Even with all my experience on and off road, If I am not 100% on my game at the time, I find myself slipping into these bad habits. Especially if I’m slogging my way home from a long adventure ride. It’s so easy to become distracted when you’re tired. Fixation can rear it’s ugly head at those times especially. Great insight, Sharif!

  4. Nicely done Sharif!
    Most riders ‘know’ what you’re talking about, but it’s amazing how Adrinalin can block out established knowledge at the time of crisis :{
    My husband and I were on an off/on road trip in Rajasthan, India 2 weeks ago . At one point the little mountainous, winding dirt track turned into a jumble of rocks- and, in spite of knowing better , I began to look down, carefully making my way through the rocks with my eyes instead of looking ahead .. sure enough I dropped the poor TTiger 800 rt on cue ! Had I been looking ahead, I could have kept going as I had been till that point.