The Mental and Physical Effects of Riding a Motorcycle
The Motorcycle Study
In 2018, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles sought out Dr. Don Vaughn to investigate anecdotal reports from their riders that riding a motorcycle put them into a different mental state. Dr. Vaughn and Dr. Mark Cohen—who is a rider himself—spent several months assessing the technical feasibility of accurately measuring the brain activity of riders in real time, as they rode their motorcycles. With significant custom engineering, Drs. Vaughn and Cohen determined it was possible.
Harley-Davidson gave Dr. Vaughn a grant to investigate motorcycle riding in a rigorous scientific study. Drs. Vaughn and Cohen created an experimental paradigm that measured brain activity (via EEG by ANT Neuro), heart rate, and a panel of hormones (ZRT labs) in three conditions: resting, riding, and driving a car. The experiment was conducted over several weeks, at multiple locations, with more than 50 riders.
The study found that riders had increased focus, attention, heart rate, and levels of adrenaline, and decreased ratio of cortisol/DHEA—a marker of stress—while riding a motorcycle than while driving a car. The team interprets these results as evidence that riding a motorcycle increases sensory focus and resilience to distraction. Notably, the changes in adrenaline, heart rate, and cortisol are similar to changes often associated with light exercise and stress reduction.
Based on the results from the main study, Drs. Vaughn and Cohen expanded the experiment to motorcycle riders and X-Game gold medalists Scotty James and Axell Hodges. The team scanned Scotty’s brain (via EEG by mBrainTrain) while he rode his motorcycle and snowboard, and Axell’s brain while he rode his motorcycle and snowmobile/motorcycle hybrid. Drs. Vaughn and Cohen presented the results on ABC and ESPN during the X-Games. Scotty subsequently won gold (Axell did not compete due to equipment failure).