Now that December is here, many of us consider the riding season to be essentially over. There may be a few more rides to be had sunny winter days, but for the most part, thoughts turn to 'next season.' This month, to get ourselves thinking about how we can make next season a safe one, I'd like to share a blog post from the UK. These folks are taking a unique and (in my opinion) very promising approach to the prevention of motorcycle crashes. If you find the blog post interesting, check out the rest of their site at nosurprise.org.uk.
The Surprise and its crucial role in accident causation.
by Duncan Mackillop.
If there is no surprise then there can be no accident is the fundamental point at the heart of the new view of road accident causation. For many decades people that have concerned themselves with the problem of road accidents have struggled to deal with what appears to be the enormous complexity of the interactions between people, vehicles and the road environment. This complexity has tended to disguise the fact that there is a simple set of underlying rules that explain all of the observed phenomena and which will provide a framework for future study. No surprise-no accident at first seems to be far too simple an explanation for the observed complexity yet as Occam’s Razor states “among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected”.
No surprise-no accident contains just one assumption, but that assumption is based on a great deal of understanding about human brains and their function and limitations and how those brains integrate with and manage complex and dynamic systems.
To fully understand the nature of surprise it is essential that some fundamental facts about brain function are clearly understood because if you understand brains then you understand everything!
Movement and Memory
The reason we actually have a brain is for the creation of complex and adaptable movement and the bit that makes us human works by making predictions based on sequences of movement patterns stored in and recalled from memory.
At first glance this might seem like an overly simplistic explanation of what is considered to be the most complex organism in the known universe, but it is essentially correct. The only way we can actually affect the world around us is by moving as without movement we couldn’t hear, speak or see, we couldn’t eat, reproduce, have fun, ride motorbikes or do the million and one things we take for granted as a human being. The majority of our sense organs are primarily designed for the detection of movement in the world around us or within our own bodies. Our eyes detect the movement of objects and our ears detect the movement of sound pressure waves in the air, the touch sensors in our fingers are attuned to the way in which our skin moves when it comes into contact with an object and stretch sensors detect the movement in our muscles and viscera. The ability to move our bodies and sense organs allows us to detect objects which in themselves are incapable of movement. Our eyes exhibit extremely complex movements all designed to pick out moving and stationary objects in the world around us even when we are moving through that world. The ability to detect all these patterns and sequences of movement in time and space makes it possible for us to store them in a memory system that has specifically evolved to handle such patterns and sequences.
The bit of the brain that we are most interested in is called the neo-cortex which is the wrinkly thing that we recognise as being a brain even though there is a lot of the actual brain buried underneath it. The neo-cortex is basically a thin sheet of cells called neurons that if you were to flatten it out would be about the size of a tea-towel. Underneath this sheet of cells which is usually called grey matter is the white matter which is all the wires and cables that connect the neurons in the neo-cortex with other neurons and other components of the brain and nervous system. Underneath the white matter is the limbic system which is a very old part of the brain and one that we share with animals like lizards etc. The limbic system plays a significant part in processing motion as well as providing all the chemical generators that drive things like our emotions etc, but it’s with the neo-cortex that the most important memory functions lie.
Thanks to one Isaac Newton we now know that all motion follows certain immutable rules, yet it would surprise you to know that a three year old child is fully aware of these rules and the resulting limitations that they place on the world. The fact that objects move through time and space according to fixed rules means that the patterns they form and the sequence they form in can be stored in our neo-cortex. The act of reading these words is sending a stream of patterns in sequence from your eye into the visual cortex at the rear of the brain. The way in which the brain is wired means that the sequence of any pattern coming in is instantly compared to a pattern sequence that the brain has seen before and has previously stored in memory. This is the mechanism by which we learn things and it is also the mechanism through which we remember things as well. If the incoming sequence of patterns matches the sequence of patterns we have stored in memory then we recognise the pattern, however if the incoming sequence of patterns does not match anything we have stored in memory then we know that what we are sensing is something novel.
By having patterns in sequences stored in memory it then becomes possible for us to be able to take from memory the next bit of the pattern sequence even though we might have currently sensed only the first bit of it. For example when you read the pattern sequence ‘how now brown’ your memory will see if it knows of a similar pattern and retrieves it along with the remainder of the pattern sequence. As you read ‘how now brown’, the neo-cortex remembers that usually when this pattern is encountered the word ‘cow’ immediately follows it. Again for the pattern sequence ‘the cat sat on the’ the word ‘mat’ is the most often experienced completion of the sequence and so that’s what the memory delivers. By way of this mechanism we are able to predict ‘what happens next’ in any sequence so you can reliably predict for example what word is missing from the end of this ___. Predictions are happening all the time in the form of IF pattern sequence (a) THEN what normally follows is pattern sequence (b) and so on.
What happens though when the initial sequence of patterns matches the one recalled from memory, but the subsequent pattern does not? What happens when rather than reading ‘the cat sat on the mat’ we read ‘the cat sat on the cow’ or ‘how now brown mat’? ...