A number of behavioral studies have validated the mental health benefits of motorcycling. But beyond the conventional explanations, is there a neuro-biomechanical basis for why, and how, “wind therapy” works?
Biker Dope’s CEO, Deme Spy, says he may have found the answer while looking at research on Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR). The same remarkable mechanism that makes EMDR so effective against anxiety and depression also appears to explain the psychological benefits of motorcycle riding.
New therapeutic technique offers surprising explanation why riding is great for your mental health
By Deme Spy*
When I stopped riding during the cold Jersey winters, my partner at the time would remind me why that was a bad idea. “You’re turning into a grumpy, anxious a-hole. Get your ass on that bike and go for a ride already!”
You’ve heard of the psychological benefits of motorcycling; dubbed “wind therapy” by bikers. A popular adage says it all:
“You never see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist's office, unless it's the psychiatrist's.”
Another one goes:
“Some do drugs, some pop bottles, we solve our problems with wide open throttles.”
Dan Aykroyd famously said "you do not need a therapist if you own a motorcycle, any kind of motorcycle". Keanu Reeves admitted during a GQ interview “when I don’t ride a motorcycle I go through withdrawal, it’s not good for my health”1
Not surprisingly, research supports what motorcyclists (and their significant others) have known all along. That riding reduces anxiety and depression, and contributes to a general sense of well-being.
TWO WHEELS GOOOOD, FOUR WHEELS BAAAAD
Studies have shown that the dopamine release, heightened state of awareness, and immersion in the moment help riders bypass negative thoughts, lower stress and promote a more positive life outlook.
Research conducted by Dr Ryuta Kawashima with Tohoku University found that riding reduces anxiety, enhances emotional health, and improves cognitive functioning--especially prefrontal cortex functions that relate to memory and spatial reasoning.2
Another study found that off-road motorcycle riders have higher levels of mental functioning, lower levels of stress and depression, and a higher overall life satisfaction.3
More compellingly, a 2021 study published in Brain Research reported pronounced neurological and physiological benefits after measuring motorcyclists’ brain activity and hormone levels. Riding increased alertness and decreased hormonal biomarkers of stress by 25%. Moreover, operating a motorcycle vs a car enhanced focus and resulted in similar effects to those observed in experienced meditators vs non-meditators.4
The insurance industry backed that up. A UK study found that riding a motorcycle was six times less stressful than driving a car--scoring even better than bicycling (cars scored 41%, buses 37%, trains 35%, subway 26%, bicycling 8% and motorcycling at just 6%).5
Given that stress is one of the most serious health issues facing society today, figuring out why motorcycling does such a good job of reducing it seems a pretty important thing to get to the bottom of.
While behavioral and existential explanations have been rightly suggested—like moto-camaraderie, feelings of freedom, and the creation of a “flow state”--the exact neurological mechanism by which this happens remains elusive.
Some theories make sense. Like the adrenaline rush and dopamine release contributing to a general sense of well-being.
Other theories maybe not so much.
One motorcycle blogger suggested that the open-legged posture required to ride is akin to “power posing” which, according to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, can balance hormone levels by triggering the brain to reduce cortisol and increase testosterone.6
The most likely explanation may be even weirder.
Insights into the neuroscience of PTSD treatment may have finally provided an answer in the form of a newly recognized therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
EMDR involves a patient visually following a therapist’s hand as it moves left to right, while recalling traumatic experiences. The result of this repeated horizontal eye movement is that the patient engages trauma from an anxiety-free, detached emotional state, without experiencing the fearfulness and stress that normally accompanies their recall.
Despite EMDR’s controversial beginnings, and an uphill battle for acceptance by the medical community, clinical findings validate its efficacy. Or put another way, it works.
EMDR is now recommended by the World Health Organization, the American Psychological Association, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as an effective treatment for PTSD.
How and why does this quirky treatment work? And what does this have to do with motorcycles?
Research has shown that the horizontal eye movement of EMDR triggers a suppression of the amygdala--a part of the brain that performs the (or a) primary role in the processing of fear, threat detection, anxiety, aggression, memory and emotional regulation.
Pretty much that part of our distant ancestral selves built around fight or flight--and that hasn’t been coping well with modern society’s persistent, abstract and uncontrollable pressures.
Researchers report that “[t]he amygdala has been identified as playing a critical role in stress responses, including fear acquisition, emotional regulation, and the learning, conditioning, generalization and extinction processes of the fear response mechanism. Alterations in fear response are proposed to lead to intrusive memories, flashbacks, and automatic hyperarousal, with avoidance and emotional numbing reactions acting as coping strategies for such symptoms.”7
The evolutionary explanation that has been posited to explain why horizontal eye movements disable the amygdala, along with its anxiety response, goes something like this.
Horizontal eye movement triggers this response as a result of our eye-brain hardwiring.
When our early ancestors moved from the jungle to the open African savannah--and walking upright gave them a distance and sight advantage over other animals closer to the ground—scanning the horizon must’ve been a frequent biomechanical function associated with situations that would require vigilance.
When we become vigilant, and move our eyes left to right, this accompanies the shutdown of the amygdala, which in turn gives us more bandwidth to focus on being aware while we scan the environment for prey or foe.
Similarly, working-memory tasks that require more bandwidth for goal-directed attention are accompanied by “robust deactivations of the amygdala.”8
While visually scanning the environment for threats (predators) and opportunities (food or sex), it was important to our survival that our heightened attention be fully immersed in the moment--without interference from anxiety and fear.
This “orienting response” in the brain not only results in increased arousal, vigilance and focused attention, but also in the suppression of the amygdala’s anxiety response. This in turn allows us to be more fully present, and better able to assess and act in the moment.
Anxiety, fear and hypervigilance were built to hijack all the brain’s processing power in high-stakes situations. Which is why their intrusive effects in PTSD interfere with attention, goal-directed cognitive processes, and information-gathering and assessment.
The magic behind EMDR is that this process has been reverse engineered. The scanning eye motion is what shuts down our amygdala and its anxiety-producing effects--which in turn tells our brain to focus and be chill--instead of the other way around.
This explains the anxiety-reducing benefits people feel while riding a bicycle or taking a stroll. In fact, EMDR therapy was discovered when it’s inventor, Francine Shapiro, noticed that looking left to right while walking in a park reduced her negative feelings.
This also explains why being immersed in constant horizontal scanning for threats and opportunities may very well be the neuro-biomechanical basis for “throttle therapy”.
Moreover, riding a motorcycle requires a more rapid scan, corresponding to the faster change in environment and higher risk a motorcycle ride brings with it. As a sportbike rider I can attest to the fact that the faster I ride the calmer I feel after.
Given that this highly effective form of therapy has gained popularity in treating not just PTSD, anxiety and other trauma-related symptoms--but also depressive, dissociative, obsessive-compulsive and personality disorders—horizontal eye motion appears to be a prime candidate for explaining why “throttle therapy” has been so ubiquitously effective.
The strong connection between motorcycling and veterans, first responders and others with traumatic experiences may, therefore, not be surprising.
The first biker clubs and outlaw motorcycle gangs are said to have been started by World War II veterans, and particularly pilots, many of whom were still processing the horrors of war.
Motorcycles have intentionally been used to help groups with a high incidence of trauma cope. These range from groups like Motorcycle Missions and Operation Combat Bikesaver--helping veterans cope with PTSD--to Bikes Over Bang’n, helping at-risk inner city youths.
A Revzilla Common Tread article commented “[t]he recent explosion of riding-as-therapy groups seems unprecedented, but instead reflects the also seemingly unprecedented rise in PTSD.”9
We may now have an answer regarding why riding is so therapeutic, and effective in reducing stress, approximating a mindful state, and increasing well-being: horizontal eye movements during the fully-immersed state of vigilance required to ride a motorcycle.
1 GQ Interview with Keanu Reevs youtube.com/shorts/-4fwQ10BCdY
2 Riding A Motorcycle Affects Cognitive Functions of Healthy Adults, Ryuta Kawashima et al, International Journal of Automotive Engineering (2014) - www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jsaeijae/5/2/5_20144193/_pdf
3 The physiological fitness, cardiometabolic health and quality of life outcomes of participation in recreational off-road vehicle riding as an alternative mode of physical activity, Jamie F. Burr, Health & Fitness Journal of Canada (2010) - www.academia.edu/18884578/The_physiological_fitness_cardiometabolic_health_and_quality_of_life_outcomes_of_participation_in_recreational_off_road_vehicle_riding_as_an_alternative_mode_of_physical_activity
4 Modulation of attention and stress with arousal: The mental and physical effects of riding a motorcycle, Don A. Vaughn et al., Brain Research (2021) - pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33482998
5 Your average commute in numbers, Lexham Insurance Blog (2016) www.lexhaminsurance.co.uk/blog/your-average-commute-in-numbers
6 Motorcycle Therapy Is Real, Meghan Stark (2021) - www.meghanstark.com/post/motorcycle-therapy-is-real
7 Potential of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, Tracy M McGuire et al, Psychology Research And Behavior Management (2014) - www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4189702
8 Eye-Movement Intervention Enhances Extinction via Amygdala Deactivation, Lycia D. de Voogd et all, The Journal of Neuroscience (2018) - www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6596227
9 Ask the doc: Is riding a motorcycle a form of therapy? Dr. Lewis Kaplan, Revzilla (2018) - www.revzilla.com/common-tread/ask-the-doc-is-riding-a-motorcycle-a-form-of-therapy