Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rapid Cognition and Crash Avoidance

After most races the talk is about tactical choices and failures, but just as often it involves identifying sketchiness: "Watch out for X...that guy is sketchy as hell," goes the refrain. Sometimes the warning occurs in the middle of the race. You look at the wobbly guy ahead who's straddling two wheels and diving corners, look to the guy on your right and shake your head.

A recent NYTimes article describes the ability of soldiers to identify sketchiness of a different kind. Some soldiers with extraordinary depth perception, experience, and highly developed intuition have the ability to sense the presence of unseen IEDs and save lives. The ability of these soldiers is the kind of instantaneous intelligence that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book, Blink. It's the kind of accident avoidance system that many racing and riding the streets need to develop.

This confirms my hunch that, often, crashing on a bike isn't the result of poor bike handling. Good cyclists seem to have a second sense that allows them to avoid most accidents. It's the ability that Lance realized he'd lost when he first came back and raced in Australia and Castilla y Leon and crashed, breaking his collarbone.

In Blink, Gladwell provides many examples of what he calls rapid cognition: an art curator able to spot fraudulent artwork at a glance; a psychologist able to tell through snapshots whether a couple will split or stay together; how Cook County became the best public hospital at diagnosing heart attacks by encouraging its emergency room cardiologists to act upon less information about patients' symptoms.

Rapid cognition certainly plays a role in avoiding crashing on a bike. By identifying "sketch" riders, taking certain lines, drifting toward safer parts of the pack, by being smart about the shape of the course layout and the dangers it poses, and by avoiding cars and buses, cyclists need a certain kind of rapid cognition to win races and to stay alive.

Brains under stress have trouble identifying immanent danger. A study on the stress hormones of Navy SEALs, for example, showed that stress hormone levels surged at the same rate as normal combat soldiers but their stress hormone level returned to normal much more quickly than normal soliders. Researchers speculate that this ability to modulate and control stress allows SEALs to better identify threats in combat. Whether SEALs gained this ability through training or they were born with it, it helps them stay alive--and it can do the same for cyclists.

A second significant finding is that soldiers proficient at spotting IEDs in simulations "tended to think of themselves as predators, not prey." Ever feel angry when racing? I feel this way often and can't explain it. I don't know if it helps me avoid accidents (I've had a couple this year, so it apparently isn't working), but according to this study it may be a more helpful emotion than fear.

Lastly, training greatly improved soldiers' ability to identify IEDs. By teaching soldiers what to look for, and by immersing soldiers in the field and simulations, soldiers improved. Big surprise. The more often you ride with a group, the better you'll get at it.

To sum up, try to remain calm in races, but if you have an emotion, better anger than fear. Practice riding in near-race conditions (for example, Greenbelt). And carry a bazooka to blast away cars that attempt illegal U-turns in front of you.

1 comment:

qualia said...

i guess this is obvious, but fitness is also a major factor. when you're in oxygen debt, vision shrinks and you're at the mercy of those around you.

i noticed lately, when i've felt relatively strong, that i can see a lot more of what's happening around me and i have the energy to move if need be.

also, the 'predatorial' mindset is easier to pull off when you're not gassed.