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Psychiatrist Traces Accidents To 'Motorcycle Syndrome'

By Carol R. Sternhell

Motorcycle accidents-a leading cause of death among college students-may have a psychological basis, and indeed give evidence of a recognizable clinical disorder, according to a Medical School psychiatrist.

"Over the past few years I have observed a group of patients manifesting unusual emotional investment in the motorcycle and sharing a number of general characteristics . . . that I have designated the 'motorcycle syndrome,'" explained Dr. Armand M. Nicholi in a report to the American Psychiatric Association last spring.

"Most people don't realize how much a part of the Now Generation motorcycles are," Nicholi said last week. "The problem is widespread internationally."

Nicholi emphasized that not all motorcyclists-including those who have accidents-suffer from the syndrome.

Five million motorcycles, Nicholi said, will be in use this year, as compared with fewer than half a million in 1956. "Injuries and fatalities have escalated to what physicians now refer to as 'an epidemic of trauma'-this year 5000 people will be killed and close to a million injured in such accidents."

The motorcycle, driven by only ten per cent of the number of students who drive automobiles, accounts for 100 per cent more injuries, Nicholi said.

'Tragic Toll'

"This tragic toll of injury and death will continue as long as research focuses on the vehicle only and neglects the driver," he said. "Physicians have thus far paid little attention to what is undoubtedly the most significant causal factor of all-the psychological."

Based on an in-depth study of nine motorcyclists, all college students, "most of whom were seen in intensive psychotherapy from one to three years," Nicholi has put together an outline of the motorcycle syndrome.

Of the subjects studied, he said, "One or more serious motorcycle accidents was common among them. The motorcycle obtruded into their daily activities, their repetive dreams, and their conscious and unconscious fantasies."

The Syndrome

Characteristics of the motorcycle syndrome include:

Unusual preoccupation with the motorcycle. "When the patient is not actually riding a motorcycle, he tends to daydream continuously of doing so. The mere sound of a distant motorcycle stimulates vivid fantasies."

A history of accident-proneness extending to early childhood.

Persistent fear of bodily injury. "Conscious and unconscious fears of mutilation and death haunt these patients. They openly discuss fear of castration. As with most fantasies, this one has some basis in reality: the loss of testicle in a cycle accident is not unknown."

A distant, conflict-ridden relationship with the father and a strong identification with the mother. "Each patient within my sample feared his father and as a young boy learned to avoid him."

Extreme passivity and inability to compete. "Although endowed with obvious potential, these patients, because of an inability to risk failure, refuse to compete-academically, athletically, or socially. They study only under pressure of exams, participate only in noncompetitive athletics, and form relationships only with those taking the initiative. . .

"When they do engage in political activity, they adhere to the more radical, extreme, irrational, and defiant part of the group. . . more commonly, however, anger is directed inward, causing apathy, withdrawal, and depression . . .

Insomnia, Blindness, Masturbation

"Insomnia, sometimes accompaniedby fantasies of going blind, disturbs the late hours. The resultant anxiety may lead to masturbation, or a sudden motorcycle ride through the night... They go to bed at dawn, wake about three in the afternoon, and then begin a routine of aimless wandering. Sleep, drugs, television, and alcohol provide escape from a monotonous, painful reality."

A defective self-image. "They reveal deep-seated, often unconscious, feelings of being ugly, unintelligent, fat, weak, feminine, and defective and frequently express a sense of having 'something missing.' "

Poor impulse control.

Fear of and counterphobic involvement with aggressive girls. "These patients characteristically depend on and fear tall, broad-shouldered, sexually aggressive girls, girls who initiate relationships by expressing admiration for the motorcycle or by asking to ride it."

Impotence and intense homosexual concerns. "The sexual history ranges from a few traumatic unsuccessful experiences for some to promiscuous activity for others. When sexual activity is mechanically successful the promiscuous subjects describe the experience as physically and emotionally ungratifying. They often attempt to alleviate anxiety resulting from failure to perform sexually by riding the motorcycle."

Masculine Self

Nicholi points out that certain aspects of the motorcycle's appeal-the thrusting of the rider's body into space, the intrusion of the deafening noise into other people's ears, the practice of keeping motorcycles in girl friends' garages-suggest genital or phallice elements, but says, "Clinical evidence proves such approaches to be limited in scope and far too superficial. . . Clinical material does make it clear, however, that the motorcycle serves as an extension of what the patient considers his masculine self."

The machine both pleases and terrifies, Nicholi said. "While fully conscious that the motorcycle provides pleasures of full expression of masculinity, even to the physical sense of orgasm, the patient also acutely senses its potential danger."

Both pleasures and the two basic fears-fear of bodily injury and of loss of control-are described "in remarkably similar terms," he said.

Cars and Planes

Nicholi stressed that this syndrome may be very similar to the emotional situations of accident-prone automobile drivers and small aircraft pilots. "Because of their susceptibility to injury and death people suspected of suffering from this syndrome should always be given psychiatric evaluation," he said.

The problem, he added, is not peculiar to this country-since the publication of his report last May he has received several hundred requests for reprints, many of them from Europe.

"The syndrome does not, of course, affect everyone who enjoys riding a motorcycle," he said. And "the sense or ejection, pervasive anger, and brooding resentment" that go with this syndrome "characterize not only the patients described but a large proportion of young people today."

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