I struggle up the vertical ramp, pushing my bike with my left hand while simultaneously pulling myself up on the railing with my right hand. The ramp is so steep that a kid reaches down to take my bike from me so that I can climb up to the platform with both hands. I’m reunited with my bike quickly. I then gulp and quiver in my Tevas, in front of me unfurls another vertical ramp towards the Camp of Champions airbag. Over 6 feet tall, the ramp looms imposingly in front of the bag, and doubts assail me endlessly.
Taking a deep breath, I try to control my rapid heart rate, the near-palpitations of my 40-year old heart beating against my ribcage.
“Come on, Old Lady, you’re holding up the line!” I look around, and realize that the ragamuffin is talking to me. I step aside, still negotiating the hyperventilation brought on by my daring. Choosing against jumping I stand to the side, and another comment is directed at me, “What are you afraid of?”
“What am I afraid of? Um, death, taxes, getting cheated on, so much…!” I gasp out the words, but talking calms me down.
My young buddy advises me, “Don’t think. Just do it!” On that note, I’m back on the bike, committed, and I’m flowing down the ramp directly below me, hurtling towards that imposing vertical ramp.
Overriding my instinct to brake, I ride up the ramp, and I’m launched into the air. My body and bike are leaning forward, and I lawn-dart into the bag. I survive, albeit with a sore neck. The great thing about an out-of-body experience (OBE) is seeing how one operates under duress. And while I was having that OBE, this one asked herself, “what the heck is going on between the mind and body when confronted with a new, yet dangerous task? And why did my young buddy’s advice work?”
The advice is gold because thinking is done by our mammalian brain, but doing is the domain of the reptilian brain. Flipping the switch from mammalian to reptilian brain, one is relying on the brain stem to dictate physical behaviour, like the flight or fight mode. Therefore, one can consciously toggle between thinking and doing. Over-thinking in an adventure may have horrible consequences, and by learning to flip the switch from thinking to doing — aka from mammalian to reptilian brain — one will survive the adventure, and acquire a new skill in the process.
So what is the reptilian brain? The basal ganglia, the upper spinal cord, corpus striatum, globus pallidus and peripallida make up the reptilian brain. Regardless of what structures comprise the reptilian brain, it’s what these structures are responsible for that is so interesting. It’s responsible for controlling the autonomus nervous system. The autonomus nervous system is comprised of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The former is responsible for the flight-or-fight response, while the latter is an inhibitory system, like lowering one’s heart rate.
The Center for Nonverbal Studies states that the reptilian brain is “the forebrain which evolved to enable reptilian body movements, mating rituals, and signature displays…Size displays as encoded, e.g., in boots, business suits, and hands-on-hips postures, have deep, neural roots in the reptilian forebrain, specifically, in” the basal ganglia.1 This means that it controls involuntary and instinctual movements, like both reflex arcs–think of your doctor knocking on your knee and your involuntary kick at her–and visceral functions which maintain function of organs. This part of the brain also controls aggression, which can be encoded in cultural cues like the aforementioned business suites, or the hands-on-hips pose. The function of this portion of the brain is survival.
Through evolution, the mammalian brain grew from the forebrain and includes the rest of the brain. The neocortex and subcortical neuronal groups–basically everything around the reptilian brain–comprise this portion of the brain. This portion of the brain is responsible for consciousness, and what we consider the civilized, or thinking portion of the human mind. Part of the function of this portion of the brain is rational thought and communication.
I consciously rely on my reptilian brain any time I am active. While I was horrified of jumping, I’ve learned how to do it safely, and correctly so well now that I can just “do it.” Consciously flipping the switch to beast mode may seem counterintuitive, but by silencing those voices in your head, aka the civilized mind, one is free to allow the body to learn a new movement. And this is how flipping the switch to beast mode may just make you a better mountain biker.
Joh Rathbun, owner of Ride On!, is a mountain bike coach and action sports writer currently based in Santa Cruz, California. To stay uptodate on West Coast events, like her Facebook page.