Habituation vs Sensitization

“Habituation occurs when we learn not to respond to a stimulus that is presented repeatedly without change, punishment, or reward. Sensitization occurs when a reaction to a stimulus causes an increased reaction to a second stimulus.” - Lumen Learning

 

In other words, when you’re used to something being a certain way, you stop paying attention to it. And when something scary (or…expensive) happens, you can become overly sensitive to it. In motorcycle terms, crashing on gravel may make you sensitized to every slight twitch of the front wheel, or on the flipside going through hundreds of corners without any event at all habituates you to expect that all corners have plenty of grip.

Habituation and Sensitization seem pretty useful for life in general. It lets us ignore the irrelevant and to be wary of the scary tiger lurking in the bushes. They’re basically shortcuts our brains create that let us worry about one thing and not the other.

The unfortunate thing about these, is for motorcycling, THEY BOTH SUCK. When you become habituated to cars acting normally, your brain is slower to react when they don’t (you suddenly need to reform your world-view). When you become sensitized to traction changes, a small twitch seems like a big deal (it’s usually not, and our freeze/flight/fight reflex takes over and makes it worse).

Right around now, you’re saying “Great bit of useless info mad8, what does this mean to us?” Mostly that “complacency kills” (too much habituation), and “worrying too much about a thing gets you… that thing” (too much sensitization).

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple, and requires a bit of self-awareness.

To fight the over-habituation, think about all the scary things you used to worry about. Cars changing lanes or doing other car things. Gravel/sand/oil in turns. Seeing a corner that’s harder than expected. That sort of thing. Now think about whether you still worry about those things, or even consider them hazards. Yes, you’re now more skilled than you used to be, so they’re less of an issue, BUT next time you ride (and maybe every time?) think about what’s in that corner and how you’d handle it…

Over-sensitization is even harder to overcome. The only real way to fight it is to intentionally put yourself in the position that you’re worried about, and to teach yourself that a little bit of things not going according to plan isn’t a big problem. MUCH easier said than done. If slipping around is what you’re worried about, practice in a parking lot with less than perfect pavement. And force yourself to ignore the little wiggles. Or if cars are the big scary thing, work on emergency braking and swerving (as well as situational awareness) to make sure you’re ready for whatever maneuver they’re going to surprise you with.



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