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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