Inside the mind of a motorcyclist


Like a lot of things, I know just enough about the philosophy of mind to be dangerous. When I was a boy, my father loved to quote Alexander Pope’s 1709 admonition that a "Little learning is a dangerous thing," that I was to drink deeply -- learn a lot -- from the "Perian Spring" where "shallow droughts" only "intoxicated the brain." It drove me crazy, and anyone who knows me will tell you it didn’t sink in. Sorry, dad!

But I just love this wing of philosophy. You get to think about things like whether the mind is different from the brain; what the mind might be made of (if anything); what consciousness is; who your self is and where it resides; and whether a machine could ever really think (one philosopher said, "Sure, your brain is just a meat machine.") I love this stuff.

Back in 1974, an American named Thomas Nagel wrote a short paper entitled, "What is It Like to Be a Bat?" His point was that we could know everything that a bat’s brain does in, say, the hunting of insects with its sonar system, but we would still never know what the bat is experiencing when it hunts. What’s the point? That we can’t know what another is experiencing, even if we do similar things ourselves. Imagine yourself at a fancy restaurant. You have quiche Florentine, and she has sole amandine. What does she taste? What does she make of the buerre blanc? Can she tell if the almonds were toasted. Is she even thinking about it as she eats it? Does she know what you think about the pastry of your quiche? If you give her a taste does she now know what you’re experiencing?

OK, now that we’re up to speed, we can ask: What is it like to be a motorcyclist? "About like it is to be a bat, ha, ha!" No, really. What goes on in there? Is it the same sort of thing that goes on in the head of someone who drives a convertible sports car, or someone who enjoys slalom skiing? Or is there something more complex going on?

"I thought you said we couldn’t know what was in the mind of another!" True, but let’s try anyway. One possibility is that a motorcyclist’s behavior will reveal something of his/her experiential state.

Take riding without a helmet, for example. One possibility is that the rider is obsessive about reruns of the TV program ER, and longs for the chance of interacting with those sexy ER doctors and nurses personally. But equally possible is that riding in warm weather is one way to achieve good oral hygiene. Brushing and flossing are such a bore, but all riders -- at some level -- know that flossing is important, especially when interacting with social partners, and what better excuse to clean up than to remove the patina of bugs that accumulated from a spirited, helmetless ride. Many riders are also facing the inconvenience of aging, and gum recession means it’s harder to get legs and antennae out of the nooks and crannies, even with careful flossing. A final possibility might have to do with staying awake. When a hard night can’t be reversed with three cups of coffee, there is nothing better for focusing the mind than a bee or wasp sting to the cheek or forehead. SMACK! OUCH! It’s guaranteed to wake up even the most sleep-deprived rider.

Or what about weaving down the road? What could this tell us about the mind of the rider? As a mildly obsessive rider, I sometimes practice swerving at manhole covers on Western Avenue (if no other vehicles are close). It is also common knowledge that a good way to warm up tires so that they are awake and ready for the ride is to swerve back and forth a little. A rider can also scuff up a new tire by doing this; doing so makes for much better grip. All of the above is possible, but a recent article I found looked quite seriously at motorcyclist mortality from crashes. Weirdly, only BMW and Harley Davidson keep track of these numbers and their possible causes. It turns out that the Harley death rate is about four times higher than that for BMW riders. Is this more or better riding gear for BMW riders? They do often look like armadillos, right? Nope, that’s not it. Remember this is about the mind. It’s much simpler: the Harley folks drink more alcohol when they ride. So swerving might indicate mental experiences that take just a bit longer to process. Careful out there, everybody.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.


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