Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thinking fast--how cycling makes you more alert and more savage

Do athletes think more rapidly than non-athletes?

A recent study (profiled in today's NY Times) tried to argue that athletes do think more rapidly.

Here's how the Times describes the experiment that sets up this conclusion:

"...a manual treadmill was situated amid three 10-foot-square video screens. One screen stood in front of the treadmill, with the others at either side. Donning goggles that gave the video images on the screens depth and verisimilitude, the students were soon immersed in a busy virtual cityscape.

When the immersive video began, the students found themselves plopped into an alley between buildings. From there, they were instructed to walk toward a busy street and, once they’d arrived, gauge oncoming traffic. The virtual cars whizzed by in both directions at daunting speeds, between 40 and 55 miles per hour.

When it felt safe, the students were to cross the road. They were told to walk, not run, but had a limit of 30 seconds from the time they left the alley. In some attempts, they had no distractions. In others, they listened to music through headphones or, emulating a common campus practice, chatted on a cellphone with a friend. Each volunteer attempted 96 crossings."

Results? Varsity athletes from the University of Illinois were much better than other, otherwise healthy undergrads. Athletes didn't walk any faster than their non-varsity peers; they simply looked more carefully and more often, and processed data more quickly than non-varsity students.

In other words, athletes thought faster.

It isn't clear whether playing sports develops mental quickness, or that the mentally quick become athletes. Also unclear is which sports performed best at navigating busy streets; researchers don't say, for example, whether runners are any good--after all, running in circles around a track hardly requires split-second timing and watchfullness.

This made me think about cycling and whether we'd be good at this. There's no question, racing a bike is among the most profoundly demanding sports when it comes to judging speed and distance. In a criterium or even in DC's streets, we have to think incredibly quickly. Our ability to perform this very rapid analysis has massive consequences--when we misjudge an object in our sport, we are run over, whereas a goalie merely allows a goal, or a batter strikes out.

It would be interesting to do a similar study on body language--whether athletes are better than average folks at judging fatigue, aggression, and so forth. Good riders can predict attacks; I've seen Chuck Hutch do this many times. Good riders can also judge when the peleton won't chase if they attack. They develop a kind of insight into the dynamics of mob movement, like the flight of pigeons or a herd of deer. These are guys who might not know anything about Nash equilibrium, but they know when a break should go and when it will stick and when the time is right.

I'm not going to suggest these skills on a bike have any bearing on things useful in life off the bike. I'm merely curious about how some people become (or maybe they're born that way) amazingly good at making very complex calculations.

This kind of instinctual calculation is something those outside the peleton can't comprehend. It's something like the instinct of wolves or lions hunting in packs. It's not something we use anywhere else, I don't think. And yet, we've got it--some of us more than others--deep in our animal brain somewhere, and to feel the dormant part of you kind of wake up in the middle of a race, that's pretty cool.


Anonymous said...

I was starting to wonder how you were going to work the obligatory Chuck Hutch genuflection into that post. Nicely done!

Calvini said...

Apologies. Part of this is a backhanded compliment; while I know Chuck is strong, I don't think he's the strongest guy in MABRA. Having raced and ridden with him (if you ride with him, you usually end up racing against him) I've been continually amazed by how has a knack for finding the right move. He's proof, to me, that race instincts are far more important than FTP.

Plus, I like Chuck, even though he has a tendency to be absolutely insane.