“Disgraceful laziness”: should brain scientists wear bicycle helmets?

A statue of Albert Einstein practicing unsafe cycling. Image: Kozma János via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Across the three continents where I’ve studied and worked amongst scientists, I’ve observed one weird constant: they don’t seem to wear helmets while bicycling. Neuroscientists in particular, with whom I’ve worked most closely, are people who deal with the brain everyday, whose entire lives are invested in understanding this organ; their very livelihoods depend on their own brains staying functional and intact. You’d think they should know, better than anyone, how vulnerable the cranium is to injury, especially at speed. Is it a case of “do as I say, not as I do” for brain scientists who go helmetless while riding, like smoker-doctors advising patients to quit? Are these denizens of the ivory tower also subject to vanity and laziness? Is it a cultural thing? I took to the scientific literature and Twitter to ascertain attitudes to the risks of unprotected cycling.

It turns out my hypothesis — that brain scientists don’t wear helmets — was flawed. In an informal Twitter poll, and in discussions with neuroscientists, it became apparent that many do in fact wear helmets. Headgear use appeared to be split along two axes: cultural/geographic and domain— whether biking was done slowly on the sidewalk versus in traffic or off-road. Infrastructure and ‘safety in numbers’ can also play a large part — here in Japan for example there is more than a critical mass of cyclists though there are hardly any dedicated bike lanes.

Many American brain scientists who responded were simply agog at helmetless riding. Chicago neuroscientist Michael Carroll tweeted that going sans helmet “boggles my mind”, while University of Utah professor Bryan Jones gave an emphatic “hell yes” in response to the helmet question. Jones, who has been hit by a car twice while cycling, told me over email that experience like that will “convert [someone] to wearing a helmet pretty quickly.”

But on this side of the Pacific, cycling is infused into the culture yet helmets are an anomaly. Though laws require helmets be worn by under-13s, they are rarely seen on children or babies being ferried around on the low-riding ‘mamacharis’, Japan’s two-wheeled answer to the station wagon used by moms, dads, shoppers and commuters. Andrea Benucci, a brain scientist in Japan, also pedals a mamachari to and from the local train station every day. “In the past when biking for my daily commute in London, Zürich and San Francisco, I always wore a helmet,” says Benucci, “but riding very slowly with a mamachari on the sidewalk and for a short distance I have the (false!) impression that a helmet might not be necessary.” Indeed, in a country with 76 million bicycles, fatal accidents are not common: in 2016, there were fewer than 800, compared with more than 900 deaths (in 2013) reported in the United States, where cycling is arguably not as prevalent across the entire country. While there are no numbers specifically for cases caused by cycling, there are something on the order of two million traumatic brain injuries in the United States every year, while in Japan there were about 56,000 head injuries reported for 2011–2015.

Joshua Johansen and Tom McHugh, who like Benucci are research group leaders at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute near Tokyo, both wear helmets while commuting, though McHugh admits to ditching the helmet “just for convenience of not having to deal with it at my destination” when riding around his neighborhood. “However, my kids always wear helmets while the majority of their friends never do,” he observes, adding that helmet use by members of his lab and at RIKEN in general is low, in line with common practice in Japan: “I do not see a big difference between scientists and the rest of the population” in helmet use. Johansen says most neuroscientists he knows who ride seriously are in the United States and almost always wear a helmet. “Bicycle usage is different in Japan,”— short, low-speed trips, often on sidewalks, to ferry children to school or to go shopping, tasks that in other countries would be accomplished by car — but, says Johansen, “serious cyclists ride on the street and wear a helmet.”

Johansen’s observation about commuting versus hobby cycling in Japan is echoed by Dutch neuroscientist and pseudonymous blogger InBabyAttachMode and is backed up by, for example, a report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Looking at data on American riders from 2012, the authors found that helmet use was tied to a number of factors — income and gender, for instance — that diverged most clearly in whether riding was for transportation or fun. Whether in Japan, the Netherlands, or the United States, the domain and purpose of riding can be the major determinant of helmet use, even among neuroscientists who might be more intimately aware of the fragility of the brain. The dichotomy was also found in Norway, where one survey found that riders could be classed as helmet-wearing ‘speed-happy’ equipment fanatics or low-speed ‘traditionalists’ who did not use helmets. The latter group were actual safer cyclists but felt less secure wearing helmets; it is these riders, the study suggests, who may be most deterred by mandatory helmet use.

An impact on the brain can cause bruising, swelling and tissue damage. Image: University of California

Risk compensation?

Helmets can protect from injury, that is clear, but what if wearing them paradoxically makes one more likely to have an accident? Forbes recently warned “bicycle helmets could be hazardous for your health” based on a study that had participants wear a helmet or baseball cap while answering a questionnaire on sensation-seeking — this was all undertaken in a lab without any actual cycling. “Just strapping on a bike helmet changed people’s risk attitudes,” writes Forbes contributor Peter Ubel, before delivering the needed caveat, “even if we still fall under the risky spell of our helmets, we’re probably safer with them on than off.”

There is evidence that wearing a helmet can make riders take more risks — when habitual helmet users cycled without a helmet, in one case, they slowed down and reported perceiving their ride as more risky, while the experience and speed of normally helmetless riders did not change. “The possibility remains that helmet laws may increase cycling speed among certain cyclists,” the authors write, “while discouraging those who find helmets uncomfortable from cycling.” Findings like these are a rallying cry for cyclists who advocate choice over regulation when it comes to helmets. Tokyo cyclist Byron Kidd, for example, tweeted that “helmet use is a HUGE deterrent for ‘regular’ people who simply use the bicycle for getting around.” Helmets laws have been especially contentious in Australia, where activists cite the hit to public health from falling cyclist numbers.

Advocacy aside, the idea that riders unconsciously compensate for the perceived safety provided by helmets by cycling faster or more carelessly is not a slam dunk, though news headlines often suggest otherwise. A Spanish study concluded that some people might just be reckless, and this is reflected both in their decisions not to wear a helmet and their propensity to get into traffic accidents that are then exacerbated by their lack of a helmet.

Image: Andy Maguire, CC BY

Science journalist Simon Oxenham has dissected the pro and con arguments and concluded that helmet use is still a paradox: good for the individual, bad for the herd. The intersection of regulation with public health and human behavior and its underlying motivations will always be heated. But maybe brain scientists who bicycle can take heed of the increased public awareness of helmets in (American) football and concussions. Neuroscientists and doctors have actively weighed in with evidence that may help the public make more informed decisions about the risks of such sports.

For bicycling, some brain scientists like Bryan Jones may feel it’s their duty to lead by example, encouraging safety-aware cycling. Others, like Andrea Benucci, acknowledge that even the brainiest boffins are subject to human vagaries. “I think I should wear a helmet,” he says, “but I don’t out of ‘disgraceful laziness’.”