The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons challenges many preconceptions about our certainties of the world. The subtitle, And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, describes what the book is all about: how we can be lured into a false sense of believing ourselves correct in many aspects of our lives. The authors describe the fragility of memory; how recall seems to us like an unedited video, but is instead a continuously updated and altered process with errors added all the time. We should never be certain of past events unless there is robust corroboration. Professors admanant they knew exactly where they were when the Twin Towers were attacked were mistaken. Eye-witness testimonies taken very soon after events can differ remarkably. The examples go on.
After reading The Invisible Gorilla I now preface every statement involving memory with a comment along the lines of “As far as I recall”. So when I say that, as far as I recall, the last thing I remember before regaining conciousness in the Emergency Department was seeing a car heading straight towards me and thinking “I’m not certain that car should be there,” I might be mistaken. However this is the image that still wakes and haunts me in the early lonely hours.
As a form of transport, the bike is hard to beat. It is non-polluting, takes up little space and is often the quickest form of transport for journeys of less than 5 km … Cycling offers excellent health benefits for relatively little cost.” Ministry of Health, 9 May 2018.
My caveat: As long as you do not get hit by a car.
It was eight thirty on a fine summer morning. I was cycling to work on a painted, dedicated Dunedin cycle lane wearing a very bright orange jacket and a white helmet. I had regulation reflectors, even a bell. I was not speeding (it is difficult for cyclists my age to exceed 50 kph on the flat). I was hit by a car travelling in the opposite direction which turned in front of me. I was later told I flew across the bonnet and landed many metres away in an unconcious heap. “It was spectacular!”
I have since got to know the driver a little. They are middle aged. They were not drunk or under the influence of cannabis. They were not speeding. They were in good health. They were fully aware of the dangers to cyclists, having repeatedly told their grown-up child at university to be oh so careful of cyclists when driving. They are a decent sort.
So what happened? The driver just did not see me when they turned. How could this be? The Invisible Gorilla explains this type of event. When I say the driver did not see me, The Invisible Gorilla suggests the driver probably did “see” me. Images of cyclists do reach the brain of motorists but at times, for whatever reason, these images do not register. It might be that motorists are looking out for other motorists, and unexpected cyclists simply slip under the radar.
I have experienced this while driving and if you drive a car you probably have too. It certainly happened to the driver who hit me that Friday. This is not something that is easy to overcome. Super vigilance at all times and minimising in-car distractions might help but are not guarantors.
Exercise is the great panacea. It is the drug all doctors should prescribe.
But all drugs carry risks. After four months I am not yet fully back to work. I still suffer marked fatigue and excruciating neck pain. I am anxious near busy city roads. I have been, and still am, a burden on my family and on my work colleagues. And I was one of the lucky ones! Soon I will be completely recovered. Colleagues and friends have fared less well, being severely injured or even killed.
The insurance companies furnished me with a brand new bike but it will never see the increasingly busy Dunedin streets. I have stopped advising people to ride a bicycle in the city. After decades of cycling I miss that sensation of whizzing along. I now realise that the feeling of being alive as you whizz along can so easily be followed, in an instant, by failing to be.
Walking to work is the new cycling for me. And in the evenings I have found a new place of civility and tranquility in the midst of the unrelenting and increasing traffic chaos: the bus. Underpaid drivers soak up the road stress. We chat, or look out at motorists and cyclists jostling with each other, or immerse ourselves in electronic devices, or best of all, enjoy that neglected paperback.
And everyone is so, so polite. “Thank you, driver,” we call, alighting at our stops.
Yes, thank you, driver.
Joe Baker is a GP at Otago Polytechnic Student Health.