Adrienne: When we think of mindfulness we tend to think of things like peace of mind, or happiness. But it turns out that mindfulness has a very practical side too. Just last night on the CBC, Quirks and Quarks covered this subject from science perspective, and today, we’re joined by our Wellness columnist, Scott McPherson, to discuss a blog post he wrote a couple of weeks ago about the same surprising issue. Hi Scott.
Scott: Hi Adrienne!
Adrienne: So Scott, we’re talking about mindfulness and motorbiking. How are you linking these two things?
Scott: Basically, mindfulness can improve our driving. And that helps because it’s often not the riders causing the trouble, it’s us drivers. And when we wonder why those accidents happen, both drivers and riders often forget to consider natural brain-processing mistakes. Because it turns out, ‘seeing’ a motorcycle is no easy thing.
Adrienne: So drivers sometimes hit motorcycle riders because we’re just not seeing them?
Scott: Yes, as Bob McDonald discussed on Quirks, many studies showed that 25-50% of fatal motorcycle accidents are caused by drivers entering the motorcycle rider’s lane even though the rider was visible. That often happens as we cross traffic on left turns; or near intersections, as people make those dangerous last-second lane-changes for shorter lines at a traffic light.
Adrienne: What is it about those situations that makes them particularly dangerous for the riders?
Scott: For sure any suddenness will always play a part. But in doing studies on the subject, scientists saw two major factors come up. The first was that, if the bike entered our view in our peripheral vision, it’s too small and vague for our brains to register it as being meaningful. This is why looking carefully and repeatedly in all relevant directions is critically important. Otherwise the bikes literally don’t become part of our reality.
Adrienne: And the second reason?
Scott: The much bigger surprise was that, even if drivers eyes were tracked as being pointed directly at the bike, many still didn’t see it. Even in our central vision, our brains can refuse to make the translation of our sight, into our reality. So we turn and hit the bike, or it hits us, because we believe it isn’t there.
Adrienne: Was there an explanation for why that was happening?
Scott: The hypothesis is that; as we look back and forth in the two directions, our brain ‘forgets’ the bike in our short term memory. Short term memory acts like a conveyor belt. So as we drive, the bike gets pushed out of our consciousness by all of the new incoming information. Another possible variation on that explanation is a subtle form of Confirmation Bias.
Adrienne: Remind us what ‘confirmation bias’ is?
Scott: Our brains will favour what it knows, over new information. So we tend to only see the things that already align with our beliefs. That generally means that we’ll see only what we expect to see. It explains things like, how we can proofread a page a 12 times and still miss a glaring error. So, if we take our first look and the bike is in our peripheral view, then the bike starts off as invisible. So our short term memory gets told the road is ‘clear.’ Then, a moment later, when we look back at the bike with our more central vision, it’s possible that our Confirmation bias on the previous all-clear might override our view of the actual bike. Basically, our belief overpowers our vision, just like with the typos.
Adrienne: And mindfulness can help there?
Scott: Let’s use the example of finding a parking spot when you’re in a hurry, to flesh this out. Even if stalls are free, parking always seems tougher to find when we’re late and maybe a bit panicked. There’s a logical reason for that. If we think of all the things we know as being hairballs of all of the neural connections that form our idea of something, then we have a hairball for the concept of ‘parking.’ When we’re worrying we won’t find a parking stall, we are activating the strands of that hairball that stores the idea of “full”.
We’re essentially in the act of pre-loading images of “full stalls” into our minds. And Confirmation Bias means we see what we believe we will see. So, when we look for parking, our brain sees full stall, after full stall… because that’s what we’re expecting to see. Like with the typos, that means we can miss the empty stalls. Mindfulness can’t create stalls, but it can ensure we’ll see the stalls that are there. And it can do the same for bikes.
Adrienne: So how do we get more mindful about the motorcycles?
Scott: In the case of the stalls, if we imagine an empty one, we light up the strand of that hairball that forms our idea of an empty stall. Just by doing that we have primed our brains. Then, when we look at the street, our brains are tuned to see the spaces, not the cars. That makes it way more likely that we’ll find one if there is one. And the same can hold true for bikes. Some researchers have wisely suggested that merely saying the word ‘bike’ would help us. because that activates that language part of the hairball, and that lets us hold the bike in our mind in more than one way. In addition to doing that while we’re driving, we would also likely benefit from doing a short meditation before we even starting to drive each day.
Adrienne: What sort of meditation?
Scott: It would be something similar to a sports-visualization technique. If we take a moment to just imagine turning in front of someone on a bike, or changing lanes into one, then our brains will read that as very dangerous and bad. And our brains a highly tuned to avoid danger. The accident, the ambulance, the court case, maybe even jail. If we take just a moment to do a decent job imagining what could happen, then our negative emotional reaction can help protect us. We’re not looking to generate overwhelming fear. But having some active, genuine concern about an accident is what adds the extra wariness to our driving. It’s that extra ‘wariness’ that keeps the riders safe.
–If we can keep the motorbikes stored in our minds as particularly vulnerable, then that’s like extending our personal radar for danger.
Adrienne: So in basic terms, in order to actually see them, we have to actively remind ourselves that they exist?
Scott: Yes. And it’s not like we don’t benefit even if we never see a bike. It’s still a good daily meditative exercise to stay as mindful as possible. Our commutes offer us two chances each day to stay focused. Each time we climb into the car we should just take one moment to imagine hitting a bike. Then, as we drive; on turns that will cross traffic, or if we’re changing lanes, we should always just say ‘bike’ beforehand. It’s a pretty practical example of how important it can be to replace our busy thinking with awareness. Just by doing that while we drive, we can literally save lives.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our Wellness Columnist. He is a writer, speaker and instructor at relaxandsucceed.com, here in Edmonton.
Every couple of weeks I have the pleasure of joining Adrienne Pan, the host of Radio Active on CBC Radio One. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the bottom of this post after its airing.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog, and this weekend and last night, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks covered the same issue. So it’s perfect timing for Adrienne and I to talk about how mindfulness can improve our driving in ways that can make life a lot safer for people riding motorcycles.
If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.