The magic of red devil’s horns
Adapted from Mental Speed Bumps: the smarter way to tame traffic
I rely on a bicycle as my major form of transport. Sporadically in the past I have been the target of road rage. I have been run off the road several times, had things thrown at me, and once was punched and kicked. But for the past few years I have not had a single incidence of road rage. Has this been the result of road rage in general declining? No, it has been on the rise. So why have motorists suddenly stopped taking their aggression out on me?
I was in Canada at a conference and found a pair of red devil’s horns that you can Velcro onto the side of your bike helmet (helmets are compulsory in Australia). Being mildly eccentric, I bought them. I arrived home, stuck them on my helmet, but didn’t ride for about a week. Obviously, when you have your helmet on, you can’t see the horns, so it is natural to forget that you are wearing them. The first day I wore my new horns I thought someone had put something magic in the Brisbane water supply while I had been away. People were smiling at me. Little kids would tap their parents on the shoulder, point, give a sheepish grin and sometimes wave. Instead of abusing me, motorists would wind their window down at the intersection and have a jocular conversation. Passengers would lean out the window as their car slowly inched past me and say, ‘Horny devil hey’. I was deeply puzzled as to what had triggered this incredible change in behaviour – until I remembered the horns on my helmet. They had somehow magically transformed the public space. And the reason I have not had another incidence of road rage? It is hard for people to be angry when they are laughing. There is something basic and universal about a smile or a laugh. It is one of the few forms of communication that transcends language and cultural barriers. Humour, therefore, humanizes public space, especially street spaces that have become anonymous and depersonalized.
Humour, like uncertainty, is a close relative of intrigue. Humour engages the storyteller by throwing it an unresolvable riddle. The logic of a helmet is that it is used to protect a cyclist’s head from irresponsible motorists and/or accidents. But when the helmet suddenly sprouts devil’s horns, there is no logical explanation. Our only human response, when faced with such an absurdity, is to smile and laugh.
According to Edward de Bono, humour builds a new neuronal tract in our brain. Our brains are a self-organizing system. When you are born your brain is like a virgin landscape. Imagine that when you are just a toddler, an older sibling scratches you. Your brain tries to make sense of this event and forges a new path through you mental landscape. The number of potential pathways your brain could have chosen to explain this event is infinite, but for a range of reasons it chooses a particular path. The next time your sibling scratches you, your brain does not have to do as much work to interpret this event. It follows the same path it did last time. The more often your sibling repeats the scratching, the more entrenched this pathway becomes. Years latter, if a trusted friend hurts you, you will use the pathway already beaten into the mental landscape to interpret this event.
These pathways we create in our mental landscape are influenced by social and cultural norms, our environment and probably by our own genetic make up. When we are thinking ‘rationally’, incoming data travels these well-worn tracks without us even needing to think. But humour and the absurd jolt the incoming data onto a completely different track – a speed bump that jolts you so bad you end up on a different street! The story is developing in a very logical manner when, wham, you are no longer on the same track of logic. In finding your way back to the main track, you are forced to make a new neuronal tract between the sidetrack you
found yourself on and the main track you were on previously. Suddenly you find yourself on a new mental adventure, exploring territory you did not even know existed. Finding your way back to the main track may only take a split second, or it may take months. Regardless of how long the adventure takes, building this new neural track in our brains releases certain chemicals that make us feel more alive. We laugh, chuckle and savour the moment. We want to hang onto that moment and feeling as long as we possibly can. We are in the world of exploring new territory, a world where time stands still.
Taking humour into the public realm is to offer an unconditional gift to whoever wishes to take it. When I see people smiling at my devil’s horns, I often wonder how I have affected their day. How long does their elevated mood last? Are they less likely to get mad with other motorists? Do they go to work and treat their fellow workers or customers a little better? Are they more generous and giving?
Those $9.99 red devil’s horns have humanised street after street in Brisbane. They have sent maybe 10,000 people a little happier to work. Quite an investment hey?
Thanks to Jillian Wolmer for sending me this piece some time ago. Just read it again and thought it would be a nice addition after a grumpy day of politics.