Shifting focus from speedometer to the car ahead we ‘lose’ 0.7 seconds of smooth tracking in the road and riding environment.
Scanning is frequently touted as the ultimate form of visual control when riding a motorcycle or even driving a car. Let’s deconstruct this piece of conventional wisdom...
First, try this quick visual experiment: find two objects about 5ft in front of you and 2ft apart. Rapidly scan your eyes back and forth between the two objects, focusing briefly on one and then the other. Observe that, unlike a still or video camera, there is no motion blur as you shift your eyes from one object to the other. A particularly good observer will also notice a very brief blank period while shifting between the two objects – a quick fade-in fade-out of the visual field. That blank period is the result of something called ‘visual saccadic suppression’ or ‘saccadic masking,’ which eliminates blurring and any potential ghost image that might dirty your vision like the ‘afterimage’ that lingers following a bright flash of light.
Taken to its extreme, where the eyes would maintain a continuous scan-focus-scan pattern, we would, based on the principle of saccadic suppression, actually miss a fair bit of information – like watching a very fast slide show. This leaves much to be desired compared to what I would consider the ideal situation of a continuous flow of visual information.
Considering that we require a minimum elapsed time of 0.35 seconds between each focusrefocus cycle, we can begin to calculate just how deficient for a rider’s needs our system really is. For every one second with two focus changes – say, from the speedometer to the car just ahead – we ‘lose’ 0.7 seconds of smooth tracking of the road and riding environment.
That represents a lot of time and a lot of space. At 30mph we’ve gone 30ft during that time; at 60mph it is more than 60ft of lost visual flow.
In all critical circumstances, vision is the source of our most vital information. The human visual apparatus is a marvel in so many ways, but, unfortunately, some key aspects of its operating system are insufficient for a rider’s needs. When riding a motorcycle, the ever-changing visual environment demands a specialized strategy on how to best use our eyes to bypass or mitigate these frailties.
We work around saccadic suppression; it’s always been a part of the operation. The alternative – a blurred visual field each time we shift our eyes – is categorically unappealing. We can use our present visual system as either a Johnny-onthe-spot fix-it or, preferably, as a highly evolved tool that prevents us from getting trapped in critical situations. As a quick-fix tool it is left wanting. As a preventative measure, once properly harnessed and trained, it can be supreme.
How can you harness the power of your eyes? You have two options: moving your eyes in a slow-tracking fashion or picking a visual plane far enough out in front that it allows you to maintain a ‘wide view’ that fills your visual screen completely while still maintaining a good connection to your peripheral field.
The peripheral field is primarily used to identify motion and give you advance warning of anything that might require your awareness. Our central, sharpfocus field is actually quite narrow – only 2º – and does not detect movement as well. If the eyes are scanning about frantically, the valuable function of our peripheral field is significantly impaired. This is not to say that you should blankly stare off into space. You need to actively fill your visual screen, but you should be aware not to make so many involuntary visual jumps. In this case, less is more.
Overcoming the eyes’ innate tendency to dart around may not be easy, but it is doable. Demanding that the eyes sweep smoothly, rather than flit around, is a skill that only improves with practice. Eyes are both voluntarily and involuntarily controlled; practice gaining conscious control of them at every opportunity, starting now.
‘He went that way!’