If you have ever been around a motorcycle rider, I’m sure you are familiar with them going on rides to “clear their heads” or think over something. These experiences are regularly talked about among riders, but some people (especially many close to the riders themselves) question whether riding has any real specific benefit.
Leading to many questions about whether motorcycles have any real benefit over just taking a ride in a car or even just taking a moment for yourself. That’s where science comes in.
Scientists from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior come in. In collaboration with Harley-Davidson, they have conducted a scientific research study to measure both brain activity and hormone levels in riders before and after a motorcycle ride to determine if the biological outcomes of taking a ride on a motorcycle line up with rider’s reports.
To do this, the researchers recorded brain activity in riders, before, during, and after riding on a motorcycle as well as while driving a vehicle and at rest (these latter two recordings were so that they could accurately compare each individuals activity during each condition and truly decide if riding the motorcycle provided specific benefits). It is important in a scientific study to rule out other possibilities for an effect people see.
So, in this example, to see if riding in a vehicle itself just provides benefits or if taking some time to yourself in general itself would provide the same benefits as taking a ride by yourself on your motorcycle. If they find differences, between these conditions and riding a motorcycle, it provides stronger evidence that riding a motorcycle provides specific benefits.
To measure brain activity, researchers used an EEG. The machine allows us to measure brain activity using recordings taken from the scalp using small electrodes. This method allows researchers to measure whole brain activity in real time, without having to do anything invasive. They then also took blood samples at each time point to measure hormone levels. In terms of these hormones, they majorly focused on cortisol, a biomarker of stress levels.
They found that during riding and after, EEG signatures of focused attention and an increased sensory awareness, meaning they were more aware of the world around them. They also found an increase in alertness overall. Results were not as clear for riders either taking a car ride or a rest.
On the hormone front, the stress hormone cortisol was reduced on average by 28 percent when riding a motorcycle, pointing to potential benefits of riding for stress reduction, something riders report frequently as to why they ride.
Taken together these results suggest that for motorcycle riders taking a ride shows all the neural signatures of truly clearing their head.
While this study may seem very specific, one important addition it makes to science in general is a proof of concept is that a neurobiological study conducted in real world conditions, something that has been rather rare in studies.