Less Is More: A Visual Experiment | CODE BREAK

Even 20-20 vision has flaws when it comes to safe street riding. What they are and how to overcome them is the topic.

Shifting focus from speedometer to the car ahead we “lose” 0.7 second of smooth tracking of 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 5 feet in front of you and 2 feet 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 second between each focus-refocus 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 second of smooth tracking of the road and riding environment. That represents a lot of time and a lot of space. At 30 mph we’ve gone 30 feet; at 60 mph it is more than 60 feet 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-on-the-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, sharp-focus field is actually quite narrow—only 2 degrees—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.

Keith Code, credited as the father of modern track schools, founded his California Superbike School in 1980 and currently operates programs in 11 countries and on six continents. His A Twist of the Wrist series of books (and DVDs) are thought by many to be the bible of cornering.

Saccadic suppression prevents blurred vision, but it’s not without its costs in terms of lost time.