Automaticity: Not Just for Autos

Tom Bowden added a new word to our bicycling lexicon: Velocapitalist. As a noun, it refers to “One who promotes the activity of cycling for transportation, sport, health or recreation and invests in or encourages public investment in cycling infrastructure and commerce.”

Here’s a word I discovered today: automaticity.

At first glance, it would seem to be just a noun version of the adjective “automatic,” because if you look it up in an online dictionary you land on “automatic.” Wikipedia does have a definition for automaticity as “the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition and practice.”

This definition makes it a synonym for the phrases “procedural memory” and “muscle memory,” which is how I discovered it as I was surfing for information on those two subjects.

Enter Automobile. Try to swing right leg over back of seat

We’re all very familiar with automaticity, even if the word itself is new to us. If you are reading this, you are most likely on a computer. Getting onto that computer probably required the use of a password. Unless it is a new password, you did not have to consciously hunt-and-peck out the characters in it as “p … a … s … s … w … o … r … d” (the most common password, BTW). Instead your fingers flew over the keyboard to positions they have gone to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times before. Even if you are not a touch typist, your fingers “remember” where they need to go in order to enter your password.

When you drive a car, you make extensive use of automaticity. You don’t slam the accelerator pedal down (unless you’re drag racing), you press it down gently. As you begin to move, an unconscious communication takes place between your eyes, your body’s awareness of that motion, you leg and your foot. You press down harder or let up some depending upon what your conscious mind wants to do with your speed. Same thing happens when you’re coming to a stop. You don’t bury the brake pedal to the floor, resulting in a face-plant on the windshield, you apply pressure to the pedal in a gradual manner, without even thinking about it, and come to a smooth stop.

Bike riding is the championship example of automaticity. Just riding in a straight line, and staying “wheels down,” requires a host of tiny, unconscious muscle movements as gravity tries to make you flop over to one side. When you make a turn, an additional set of muscles comes into play as you steer and lean and your legs apply just the correct amount of pressure to the pedals to keep you at the appropriate angle.

Activities like driving and bike riding require such an extensive set of coordinated muscle memory actions that sometimes we experience something which might be called “out of context habitual motion patterns.” That mouthful simply means performing the automatic actions of one activity when you are engaged in another, unrelated activity. Er… I don’t know if my simplification served to simplify it! Perhaps an example would be better:

I was pushing a loaded shopping cart through a busy parking lot one day, and I wanted to cross over to the left side of the lane. I naturally called upon an action which automaticity has built into my nervous system as a result of performing it thousands of times while riding my bike in traffic: I started searching the empty air just forward of my left temple. I was looking for the rear view mirror mounted to my bike helmet, so I could initiate a safe lane change. It was amusing and a tad embarrassing at the same time.

It isn’t the first time I’ve been pushing a shopping cart in that parking lot and had an episode of bike related automaticity. I remember a cart starting to get away from me, and as I renewed my grip on the cart handle, I kept groping further beyond the bar with my fingers. I was instinctively looking for the brake levers.

Shopping carts aren’t the only things which initiate autonomic bicycling muscle functions for me. On my main commuter bike, I ride with SPD clip-less pedals. As I come to a stop, I always twist my left heel out first, to un-clip from that pedal and place that foot down on the pavement. Sometimes, I don’t even clip-out of the right pedal at all.

The Honda automobile I drive has a standard transmission, there have been several times I have taken my left foot off the clutch and noticed a slight, twisting motion in my heel outboard. I’m un-clipping from the clutch pedal.

Just as my bike muscle memory infiltrates my automobile driving, my car procedural memory sometimes invades my bike riding. In the mornings, until I get that first cup of coffee into me at the office, I’m on “automaticity pilot,” no matter which vehicle I take into work. If I’m riding my recumbent, I sit down in the seat and check my rear view mirror (just like I do in the car). I turn on the headlights (just like I do in the car). A couple of times I’ve leaned back in the seat, brought my right hand across my body, up just past my left shoulder, and searched for the seat belt (just like I do in the car). Not able to find it, I immediately utter an expletive (just like I do in the car). I then chuckle and feel kinda silly.

Lest you readers think I’m some kind of Ãœbersafety Nut, I donothave seat belts on my recumbent bicycle.

Now it’s time for everybody else to come clean. Fess up! Give me some examples of when your own automatic systems have made you feel like a jerk. Confession is good for the soul, people.

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9 thoughts on “Automaticity: Not Just for Autos”

  1. Michael says:

    The mirror check reflex is something I have developed. Whenever I am walking and I hear something behind me I always glance up and left for the mirror before turning my head.

  2. Ray Lovinggood says:

    Ditto on the mirror.

    As for cars: Although my present Subaru and previous Honda have automatic transmissions, all my other prior cars had manual transmissions. And even though it has been ten years since I’ve owned a car with a manual, I will, on rare occasions, stab at a phantom clutch pedal with my left foot. I did put a lot of miles on the ’88 Accord with manual transmission: 396,000 before an errant driver totaled the long-haul sedan. I got a lot of clutch practice with that one!

    Lastly, I think I’m experiencing “automaticity” when I turn on a light switch in a dark room when I know the power is out.

  3. Barry Mainwood says:

    Walking in a group on a busy street I find myself saying “car left” or signaling where I’m going so the rest of the group knows what’s up.

  4. Graham says:

    My two main bicycles are a road bike and a beach cruiser. One has hand brakes and the other has a pedal brake.

    Please have fun picturing me me backpedaling frantically on my road bike when approaching an intersection trying for a few seconds to engage the pedal brake. (I also grab at the nonexistent hand brakes on my beach cruiser, but that’s not as funny to watch.)

    So far, I’ve always managed to correct myself almost as soon as its happened and have thus far avoided an accident, but it makes me curse each time it happens!

  5. Warren says:

    I rode a motorcycle for years and got so used to giving a little wave that I tend to do it if I’m driving a car with the windows down. Because my car is a manual, whenever I drive an automatic I’m constantly grasping for the stick shift and searching for the clutch.

    I sold my motorcycle a while back and am now commuting to work on a bicycle. I am constantly thumbing for the non-existent turn signals and getting the front and rear brakes mixed up because on a motorcycle the left lever is the clutch and the right is the front brake.

  6. Island Dave says:

    I have been car free for a year and a half now but something I did when I still had my old Jeep might exemplify “Automaticity”.

    When pulling into my long weavy drive way in my Velomobile (or other bikes)I cruise up to my home and then down the stone walk way along the side of my house to the kitchen door.

    One day I pulled into my drive way in my old Jeep and not really thinking, in “Automaticity” mode, drove up the walk way as if I was riding my Velo or other bikes. Oops! The flower garden always did kind a stick out to far anyway….(-;

  7. Jeff Gardner says:

    Seems that the value of your interesting idea Blues, “bike-related automacity”, is primarily that it is but a small window into the rest of our lives. As Hippocrates observed, ‘there on only two things in the world — what we know and that which we think we know’. The astute observer knows that the latter is much, much larger than the former, and that all better “right” knowledge we profess to have is a matter of having changed our minds about other “right” knowledge we had at some other time. ‘Automacity’ seems to be an equal opportunity codifier that includes but far exceeds the “better knowledge” ideas about bicycling that we all share on this forum.

    The conscious mind processes about 40 instructions per second. The near-infinitely more powerful subconscious mind processes a million times more instructions in the same time. Guess where ‘automacity’ probably feels more comfortable. That wheelhouse includes bicycling and bicycle-related ‘knowledge’, but also, so much more. For any 10,000 people who would be better to learn from each of our our bicycle commuting knowledge and examples, there are 10,000 ways that we ourselves live the same ignorance, unawareness, and resistance to learning. I wonder how much of that suffers from ‘automaticity’, too.

    Blues, you seem to be actively thinking and writing much lately. Its a good contribution. Thanks.

  8. J Rob says:

    When I’m heading home after work I’ll find myself crusing down a quiet neighborhood street in my Civic, realizing “Hey, I took the Bike way home.”

  9. Steve says:

    I cycle about 90% of the time. I find that when I do drive I forget about using the local interstate system to get around. I tend to head to my normal bike routes even though They are longer. And psychologically I really resist getting into the left lane on roads with four lanes. It feels really uneasy. Not muscle memory, I guess, but psychological habit. I don’t use mirrors on by bike but look left and back often. I am now really good at checking my blind spot when driving.

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