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Behavior: The Motorcycle Syndrome

3 minute read

“Driving it is a very physical, almost sexual feeling. You accelerate fast and there is nothing between you and nature. The wind blowing in your face is a marvelous sensation. It has tremendous appeal. My new machine has a huge motor. With this under me, I feel I can do anything I want to.”

With these words, a 23-year-old Harvard graduate student told his psychiatrist why he had just bought his third motorcycle, despite having suffered serious injuries in two cycle accidents during the previous six months. Luckily, his psychiatrist was Harvard Medical School’s Armand M. Nicholi II, who had been studying and treating college cyclists for years. From the way the young man talked about his machine, Nicholi easily concluded that his patient was the victim of a hitherto unrecognized emotional ailment: the motorcycle syndrome.

Writing about this psychiatric disorder in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Nicholi explains that he found the same basic symptoms in all his sick cyclists. Leading the list was a day-and-night preoccupation with the machine: when the patient was not actually riding, he was daydreaming—or nightdreaming—about it. Unlike the healthy cyclist, a person with the motorcycle syndrome literally needs his machine; without it, he has a sense of “something missing” and an “acute awareness of inadequacy.” As one patient told Nicholi: “If I got rid of the bike, there would be nothing but me, and that’s not enough.”

Occasionally Nicholi’s patients were promiscuous, but without pleasure; often they were impotent; always they worried about discovering that they were homosexuals. All the patients saw their cycles as extensions of their masculine selves. Said one: “The noise is all you hear. It’s masculine and makes me feel strong. I approach a girl on a cycle and I feel confident.”

Without their bikes, the students also lacked confidence socially and academically. Passive, apathetic and inactive, the afflicted students spent their non-cycling hours sleeping, talking aimlessly, drinking beer, or escaping reality in TV and drugs. When anxiety threatened to overwhelm them—often in the middle of the night—they took to their cycles for the illusion of “doing something and getting somewhere.”

All these symptoms are explained, Psychiatrist Nicholi believes, by the patients’ “tenuous masculine identification,” often caused by difficult childhood relationships with demanding, critical and successful fathers. The sons felt it hopeless to try to be like them, and thus used their motorcycles to compensate for feelings of effeminacy and weakness.

Compensation came high. The patients were rarely without conscious and unconscious fears of death and mutilation; fantasies of going blind often kept them awake at night, and terror of possible castration haunted them. As important as their fears were the actual injuries they suffered. All of Nicholi’s patients were accident-prone. Most of them had experienced at least one serious motorcycle accident. Yet none were ready or willing to give up their bikes.

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