By December 16, 2009

Random Motorcycling Tip #12: See Everything By Looking At Nothing

“When I ride, I keep my head on a swivel,” my Motorcycle Safety Foundation course instructor told me over four years ago. He went on to describe how his eyes were always darting around, and he was constantly looking behind him and to the sides. It sounded super vigilant, and super safe. I wanted to be super vigilant, and super safe, so that’s what I did.

A few years (and a few thousand miles) rode by, and I realized that I didn’t really feel any safer with my head spinning around, eyes fleeting everywhere. Quite frequently I would look to my right, then my left, and notice that traffic had locked up their brakes in front of me. I found that the more anxious I was with my riding, the more fatigued I became. I started to relax my body more while riding, and that included how I looked at the world around me. My eyes and head stopped moving so much, and while my eyes were mostly straight ahead, I never fixated on any one thing for too long.

I seemed to ride better, anticipate things more accurately, and react to situations more quickly. I chalked it up to experience and riding with more confidence.

Little did I know that my day job would explain how I could see everything by looking at nothing.

One of the many tools that usability experts use to conduct tests is eye tracking. Special contraptions or monitors shoot beams into a participant’s eyes and records how people view things on a Web page. Three years ago, a study took place that measured how long it took participants to notice something new on a monitor. Objects would flash on various places on the monitor. The outcome of that study, Detecting Transient Changes in Dynamic Displays: The More You Look, the Less You See (just an abstract), has a few practical implications to motorcycling specifically, but to visual awareness in general.

The study noted that the human eye is built to detect motion along the periphery of our vision. The hypothesis was that this helped us avoid predation in the wild. These days, it helps motorcyclists avoid cagers drinking their mocha jumbo lattes while jibber-jabbering on their mobile phones.

The other interesting tidbit of the study was that there were two types of participants in the test. The majority of the participants looked all over the screen, trying to anticipate where the next object would appear. The minority did not stare at any point on the screen, but instead held a relaxed gaze. Those that looked all over the screen fared worse — up to 50% worse — than those with the relaxed gaze. Hyperactive lookers were coached to make fewer eye movements, and their accuracy and response time went up.

So, the next time you are riding, try relaxing your vision. Don’t stare at something (that encourages target fixation, a mortal enemy of a motorcyclist in danger); just, you know, take it easy. Let me know if it makes you “see” better.

The study is about $23 to download in case you want to read it:
Detecting Transient Changes in Dynamic Displays: The More You Look, the Less You See
Walter R. Boot, Arthur F. Kramer, Ensar Becic, Douglas A Wiegmann, and Tate Kubose
Human Factors and Ergonomic Society, Vol. 48, No. 4, Winter 2006 pp 759 – 773 (2006)

Posted in: motorcycling

3 Comments on "Random Motorcycling Tip #12: See Everything By Looking At Nothing"

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  1. the Accountant (tm) says:

    As a cager I say fear me!

  2. Gremlin says:

    First thing in the spring, I always feel a little out of sorts. I ride slower, I have trouble remembering to get into first gear as I approach the stop light. Then, after a couple of weeks of riding, I’m suddenly in the zone. I seem to anticipate everything. I love that ride, it’s the most perfect zen moment. It’s why I ride.

  3. Tomax says:

    We were taught to do this in Search and Rescue, especially at night on the water. You are able to catch faint glints of light, such as retro-tape on life jackets, if you relaxed your vision and picked up objects with peripheral vision. I always find that I ride better when I’m relaxed and “In The Zone” too. Wu-sah grasshoppa, Wu-sah.