Wearing a bike helmet will trick your brain into thinking you’re safe even if you’re not sitting on a bike and the helmet cannot fulfill its function.
The significance of some objects is lodged so deeply into our psyches that we rely on them to do their job even when they can’t actually help us, new research shows. A new paper worked with bike helmets to show that these items can make a wearer feel safer even when they are not sitting on a bike and the helmet cannot fulfill its function.
“We conclude that the helmet clearly has an impact on decision-making in the risk game. Obviously, participants associate a feeling of safety with wearing the bike helmet,” explains Dr Barbara Schmidt, head of the study.
“It is possible that this is a priming effect. This means that the significance we associate with a helmet automatically has a cognitive effect that is also measurable in the brain.”
We first learn that wearing a bike helmet keeps you more protected in traffic or during a fall when we are little, and this view only gets reinforced as we age. Because of this, the helmets start suggesting — both to us and to our brains — that we are safe as we wear them.
The effect persists even when the helmet is obviously useless, report psychologists from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany in cooperation with the Canadian University of Victoria.
The team asked 40 people to play a computer card game in which participants choose between a high-risk and a lower-risk gambling option in each trial. Half of these participants were given a bike helmet to wear, under the cover-story that the eye tracker mounted on it measures their eye movements.
During the game, the team used EEG to monitor and record the neural activity of the participants. Thus, the team found that the brain activity that characterizes the weighing up of alternatives in the decision-making process, FMTP (“Frontal Midline Theta Power”), was much less pronounced in the participants that wore helmets — which the paper calls indicative of less cognitive control. Helmeted participants chose the riskier option in about half of trials no matter how risky the other option was, whereas un-helmeted participants showed more reluctance in picking one option the riskier it was.
Both the helmet and no-helmet groups were tested and showed comparable levels of trait anxiety, meaning that the observed variations in FMTP can’t be chalked up to pre-existing group differences.
“Investigating neuronal parameters allows us to learn more about why we act the way we do — and how this can be influenced,” says Schmidt. “In the present study, we used the very subtle manipulation of wearing a bike helmet. But safety can also be suggested more clearly, for example during hypnosis.”
“It is stunning to observe how suggestions can influence brain activity,” she says. “In the hypnotic state, participants are very open to suggestions, for example, the suggestion of a safe place.”
Wearing a bike helmet, she adds, can also be interpreted as a suggestion on a subconscious level, she adds. However, even such a subtle cue can significantly affect decision-making processes, as this research shows.
The paper ” Wearing a bike helmet leads to less cognitive control, revealed by lower frontal midline theta power and risk indifference” has been published in the journal Psychophysiology.