“Without adequate acceleration, a two-wheeled bike simply falls over on its side and remains inert. For reasons of basic physics, speed is the lifeblood of motorcycling. Thus, there can be no motorcycling without speed.” ~Mark C. Taylor and Josè Márquez “Cycles of Paradox”
But while speed is the lifeblood of motorcycling, thrill is the lifeblood of the motorcyclist.
Just as a motorcycle needs speed to balance, it must become temporarily unbalanced and fall partway to be able to change direction. For reasons of basic physics, it needs a controlled, incomplete fall to turn. And both speed and leaning into the turn are thrilling.
The thrill of speed
Thrill, according to Frank Rickabaugh Arnold in his dissertation, “Ordinary Motorcycle Thrills: The Circulation of Motorcycle Meanings in American Film and Popular Culture”, is the core experience in motorcycling. Thrill, as an intransitive verb, refers to the involuntary “shiver of emotion” as well as to the physiological reactions to that emotion. As a noun, it refers both to that sensate experience and to the cause of that emotion.
The most ordinary experience of thrill is falling, which kicks in at falling speed—38 feet/second squared—and consists of two things: sudden, abrupt acceleration and the sense there is no ground beneath us.
We experience thrill in our brains. Physiologically, the systems that control our balance and tell our brains where and how our bodies are located in space are immediately and overwhelmingly flooded with data. Within nanoseconds, the limbic system is triggered: our heart rate speeds up; our muscles tense; and our physical senses are heightened and sensitive. That’s why we delight in the downhill side of a roller coasters rather than the uphill climb. It’s why some of us love whoop-de-dos and others love sky-diving, bungee or base jumping. And it’s one of the main reasons we love motorcycling.
Sudden acceleration arouses us in similar physiological ways as we are by sex. And, just like orgasm, thrill releases endorphins that flood our system with a sense of well-being. Thrilling activities make us keenly aware of our surroundings and that we are very much alive. Far from being a death-wish, then, riding a motorcycle is very much a life wish.
The thrill of horizontal falling
Acceleration, Arnold points out, is a “special case of falling”. The same forces act on our bodies, the same sensations are experienced, the same heightened brain activity that happens in a vertical fall happens horizontally.
As we learned in high school physics, Force = Mass * Acceleration. The faster the acceleration—or deceleration—the more forces acts upon the human body. Once we’ve achieved that acceleration though and are traveling at constant speed, there’s no forces related to that movement that act upon the body, and we do not feel we’re traveling at the speed we are. The flood of data slows down, there’s no longer a sense of heightened sensory input—it feels normal. For example, you don’t even feel in motion in a plane that’s at cruising altitude.
In all activities that involve speed, then, it’s not the constant rate of travel itself that brings us the most pleasure; it’s the acceleration and controlled but rapid deceleration. In activities that involve falling—sky-diving, bungee or base jumping—it’s linear and short in duration: one acceleration and one deceleration. It’s also the acceleration that’s most prized. Other activities like driving, water or snow skiing, and motorcycling offer repeated experiences of acceleration and deceleration—and that’s what’s most prized by their adherents. Riding on an empty freeway for hours at the exact same speed may be pleasurable, may be comforting, may be peaceful—but it’s not thrilling. That’s found on twisty roads that require the two special cases of falling essential to motorcycling—acceleration and lean.
Arousal, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out in Finding Flow, is that state where we feel “mentally focused, active and in control” and it’s one of the two components we must feel to experience flow. Flow is a mental state when we’re so immersed and absorbed in what we are doing that the sense of time and space disappear—hours pass like minutes, space shrinks or expands in inexplicable ways. Csikszentmihalyi says it “tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one’s ability to act and the available opportunities for action.”
If we’re adept but the task is too easy—there’s no sense of flow; we become relaxed and then quickly become bored. If we’re adept and the challenge is too hard—no flow; we experience frustration and stress and then anxiety. Flow only occurs when we’re at the edge of our ability to do something and the challenge of what we are doing; flow is found on the edge.
Activities that provide immediate feedback as to how well one is doing are more prone to triggering flow. When “goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance” our attention becomes focused, we become invested in the outcome and flow ensues.
In the state of flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, we’re so focused that we’re hard to distract. We feel energized, we lose self-consciousness and forget irrelevant feelings, we feel competent and self-assured. In the state of flow, our sense of who we are merges with what we’re doing: we feel most alive and most who we really are as we’re doing the activity. And we feel powerful because we feel that what we’re doing is important and we feel in control and we feel in charge of our own destiny.
When the challenge is high and the skills are high we become both mentally aroused and feel we’re in control and then we experience flow. Both arousal and control, he says, are very important states for learning and “flow experience acts as a magnet for learning—that is, for developing new levels of challenges and skills” (at some point I hope to come back to this in terms of rider training).
But activity is the key to the activity that will produce flow, Csikszentmihalyi says. Ones that require action and socializing are demanding and almost always produce moments of stress and anxiety. Passive activities are more relaxing but, oddly enough, research shows that they are experienced as less enjoyable. The higher and more demanding the level of skill and challenge, the greater likelihood of flow—and thus long-term satisfaction with one’s life in other areas as well.
People find that nexus of skill and challenge in a variety of activities and some of them very sedentary—chess and video games, for example and some rather slow like gardening, carpentry and working on cars/motorcycles. Any activity that involves in frequent change in the balance of skill to challenge in the form of obstacles, conditions and so forth usually require greater control and usually involve both mental and physical skills. Activities like these then intrinsically supply abundant opportunities to experience flow.
However, extreme sports and particularly those involving speed and/or lean is where many seek that edge where flow can be found. Because, of course, activities that involve speed are ones that particularly require both high skill and high challenge—and that challenge is in part so high because of the potentially high consequences. Activities that involve speed and rapid reactions also require absorbed and attentive focus, the feedback is immediate and intense, the goal is clear and have multiple levels that require increasing skill matched with increasing challenge. Video games supply all that to those too young to participate in other activities that would accomplish the same thing.
Absorption and attentive focus quiet the mind even as its energized and operating at peak performance, which is why motorcycling, for example, is experienced as simultaneously both exhilarating and yet relaxing. Motorcycling, then, with its constantly changing literal balance and orientation in space in the act of leaning triggers physical arousal. It also triggers mental arousal—and its constantly changing degree of challenge and the increased level of control it requires is especially positioned to provide opportunities to experience flow.
Not risk-seekers but flow-seekers?
Popular culture sees motorcyclists as risk-seekers on the hunt for that thrill. However, research has found that young motorcyclists aren’t any more risk-takers than young drivers are. It could be, then, that those who are drawn to motorcycling are those who have a higher need to experience flow.
While happiness is not the same thing as flow, Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that happiness and motivation was highest involved in active leisure, talking with people and when eating. Talking, he says, results in flow and personal growth when it’s with those who you find have “interesting opinions and whose conversations are stimulating”. While “superficial conversations…can stave off depression” but don’t result in flow. Concentration is highest when working/studying, when driving and in active leisure—the parts of our lives that require the most mental effort. These are also the things that provide the most opportunity for flow.
It could be, then, that rather than having thrill-seeking or risk-taking personalities, riders have a higher need for flow.