By Kyle Petersen

Studies on unicycles and the brain

Studies on unicycles and the brain

What do unicycles, testosterone and cellphones have in common? They’ve all been subjects of recent psychological and sociological studies, merging the worlds of monowheeling and science. One study, by Sam Shuster, a retired professor of dermatology, tests the public’s response to seeing a unicyclist in public and theorizes that testosterone levels have a lot to do with whether or not the response is positive or negative. Shuster notes that women often yelled out encouragement:

  • “Wonderful… I am impressed”
  • “Magic… it is magic”
  • “You are an Olympic champion”
  • “I wish I could do that. Oh that looks good”
  • “That must need a wonderful balance”

Men however, were not so kind:

  • “Lost your wheel?”
  • “Hey do you know you’ve only got one wheel?”
  • “I’ll look for your other wheel”
  • “Couldn’t you afford the other wheel?”

This study proves two points that we already knew: 1) Men are jerks, 2) Most people aren’t that clever. While the study seems to state the obvious, some have been critical of the methodology. One prominent unicyclist, David Stone, called the study “terrible”:

Not much information, and many faults. It also didn’t compare the public’s reaction over a given time. I have ridden in NYC for 30 years and have seen some definite changes over that period. For sure, there is a component of reaction due to testosterone, as the writer of the study points out, but a heap of reaction is due to changes in social mores and demographics.

Another study, conducted at the University Bellingham, Washington, aimed to measure the level of distraction of cellphone users. Researches theorized that cellphone users have “inattentional blindness”, meaning that the brain doesn’t fully register what the eyes see. To test this theory, they sent a student researcher around campus in a clown costume riding a unicycle. As The New York Times explains:

“I was trying to think about what kind of distraction we could put out there, and I talked to this student who had a unicycle,” said Ira E. Hyman Jr., a professor in the university’s psychology department. “He said, ‘What’s more, I own a clown suit.’ You don’t have a student who unicycles in a clown suit every day, so you have to take advantage of these things.”

The study found (unsurprisingly) that cellphone users failed to notice the unicycling clown with the bulbous nose at an alarming rate.

Among pedestrians who were listening to music or walking alone, one in three mentioned that they had just seen a clown on a unicycle. Nearly 60 percent of people who were walking with a friend mentioned the clown. But among people who had been talking on the cellphone, only 8 percent spontaneously remembered the clown.

To anyone who’s been in public in the past 10 years, these results come as no surprise. I’ve conducted my own informal study regarding the attentiveness of pedestrians in New York City to unicyclists in the bike lane. My study concludes that pedestrians who talk on a cellphone and use the bike path as an extension of the sidewalk have a decreased awareness of unicyclists hurdling towards them:

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