Two ideas I've been wrestling with finally collided while on my way from Detroit to Toronto. It took me a while to piece it all together. It's still not as 'clean' and precise as I'd like, but I'm still going to throw it out there there as-is. There's more to it than this, but I have to save something for the book. ;)
A psychoanalyst named Spitz in the 40s studied the extremely high mortality rates among children in institutions and discovered that without touching, goochie-gooing, laughing or cuddling, children became sick, lost weight and died. His research led to the development of attachment theory and the realization that an infant “needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for mental, social and emotional development to occur normally.” (This, in turn, led to the seemingly obvious result: solid parental affection leads to emotional balance and a child that grows up feeling secure.) The child who grows up with intermittent affection – or is abused and neglected – will suffer from a life-long sense of insecurity, feelings of doom, lack of confidence and inadequacy (despite what he/she accomplishes) as well as a whole host of other possible behavioral, psychological and health issues. The part of our brain responsible for everything we consider human—love, tenderness, emotions, reciprocity—is called the limbic brain (vs. the reptilian one that controls our vitals and the neocortical brain that is responsible for thought and language).
For those who do suffer limbic deprivation when young (which can come from enforced isolation, neglect or abuse) life can be a living physiological hell: the desire for love and affection still exists (and is in a lot of cases even greater than in well-adjusted counterparts), but the capacity to actually FEEL loved is greatly diminished. Depression, anxiety, ennui, weariness, despair, aggression, etc. are the easy-to-recognize consequences, but there are others that are not typically seen as a result of the deprivation. Though healthy limbic systems can deal with emotional pain internally by releasing small amounts of opiates (there are more opiate receptors in the limbic brain than anywhere else) when needed; an undeveloped or damaged limbic system cannot. Drug and alcohol use, for instance, perform surrogate limbic regulation that modulate, suppress and compensate for what the limbic brain didn’t ‘learn’ in infancy and can lead to a chronic, lifelong separation-anxiety. Other methods of self-regulation include self-mutilation (an act that is not specific just to humans), which seems like a desperate cry for help, but topical injuries are actually a way to release natural analgesics and opiates. (In one sentence the mystery of why acupuncture works and why people hit walls when they’re angry have been resolved!).
So why this Neurology 101 lesson?
I haven’t not felt at peace on my bike ever. One more time: I haven’t NOT
felt peace—at any time--while riding. I think clearer on the bike, the symptoms of post-brainiotomy are reduced and, aside from my hamstrings and glutes being cooked, I physically and emotionally feel far healthier on the bike than off. The anxieties and disappointments of ‘real life’ are diminished, I can think about problems without being affected by them and simply feel as if everything is going to be ok. It’s a mild euphoria—and I’m not talking about the excitement that comes from nailing an apex or spinning the back out of a turn without crashing. There’s a connection between man and machine unlike anything I’ve ever had with another non-living thing. We’ve all felt it, but in all the years I’ve been riding, I’ve never heard or read anyone go in depth as to why. It would be easy to assume it’s a psychological result of the freedom we feel on a bike—or perhaps it’s the exhilaration that comes from taking risks--and nothing more.
But if we examine the stereotypical motorcyclist (rebellious, recalcitrant, problems with the authorities, hard-drinking, self-sabotaging, dissatisfied, frustrated, empty, adrenaline-seeking, tattooed loners who-if they find their place in society-still will never feel like they belong) we witness textbook examples of what? Limbic malfunction. (If there ever was a poster child for this it'd be Leonard Smalls, who, not coincidentally is inked with a "Mama Didn't Love Me" tattoo.)
So why is it that so many people who have similar symptoms to those with limbic malfunction choose motorcycles? Why not scooters or RVs? My theory is this: Motorcycles function as limbic system regulators and those who have the most difficulty regulating their own internal states gravitate to a piece of machinery that do it for them.
A quick examination of mammalian limbic synchronicity reveals some striking parallels with characteristics of motorcycles. There are specific sensory inputs that function as stimulators and regulators of internal systems in mammals. For instance, warmth and smells cue activity and metabolic levels, tactile stimulation increases growth hormone levels, feeling the heart rate and rise and fall of another’s chest regulates heart rate, respiration and circadian cadences, and immune system strength increases or decreases based on sensory stimulation. And if you look at the external cues that influence positive internal changes in mammals, we see how motorcycles produce mammalian signals that we desire with human physical contact. An engine is a pulsing heartbeat we feel, rpms rise and fall like air in and out of lungs, the wind caresses our hair and face and bodies like a lover would (a reason why so many riders ride helmetless even though it makes no ‘sense’?), there’s warmth from the engine, the bike embraces our bodies (sportbikes put us in the a fetal position, a Harley spoons you from behind), and perhaps most important the bike reacts to our every input and responds to our inner states—if we’re restless it speeds up, if relaxed, it slows down.
And when we talk about being “one” with the bike or the road, what we’re actually experiencing is a limbic resonance where our physiological rhythms is adjusted and modified through synchronized contact with our beloved motorbikes. (And while we’re talking about being “one” with the bike, it is interesting to note that the term “stress” originates from the Latin word meaning “to pull apart” or “separate”. Basically, stress is the result of being separated from an attachment figure and, in their absence, our bodies physically feel the separation, which leads to illness and disease. It’s the exact opposite feeling we obtain when riding. And if stress and not feeling complete lead to illness, it’s not a stretch to assume that feeling one with the bike will lead to better health and longevity.)
In short, neural and physiological stability requires synchronization from an outside source. Many of our internal processes are not self-regulating. Motorbikes provide a surrogate regulator that modify everything from cardiovascular health to immune function, hormone levels and circadian rhythms. It’s only natural to become attached to such an object, going so far as to refer to them with names and attributing gender (nearly always female, no coincidence).
Funny enough--my whole life I refused to name any of my cars or bikes. I referred to them simply as “it,” because I thought I loved them precisely because they weren’t people. But the whole time my beloved vehicles provided me with the mammalian contact and regulatory synchronization I desperately needed.
And why is this topic so important to me you might be wondering? I wasn’t abused as a child, but as a newborn I spent 14 days isolated in an oxygen tent. It was an event I’ll never be able to remember, but the impact of those two weeks have persisted my whole life.
So now, for the first time in my life, it’s time for me to give her a name she deserves.