Donders Wonders Blog

I’m a neuroscientist and I wear a bike helmet

This post is also available in Dutch.

I study the brain. I love the brain. I protect the brain. To a neuroscientist, this is (or should be) obvious.

I’ve been living in Nijmegen for ten years, and I’ve been wearing a helmet for about seven years. I had a minor bike accident which showed me that I’d better wear a helmet. I’ve been protecting my brain ever since.

Better safe than sorry

I regularly get asked, “Why do you wear a helmet?” Immediately after that often comes the next question: “It’s obligatory in Germany, right?” Yes, I’m German. Yes, maybe my roots have some effect on my wearing a helmet but no, it is not obligatory there. I personally think that there are more people wearing bike helmets in Germany because of the “better-safe-than-sorry” attitude most Germans have compared to the “everything-will-be-fine” (i.e., “komt goed”) attitude most Dutch people have. Luckily, here car drivers are used to all the cyclists and usually take good care of them. So, why do I still wear a helmet in the Netherlands?

How a helmet can protect our precious brain

A helmet protects our brain, our most important organ. We cannot replace it like, for instance, the heart, another very important organ. Although our brain is surrounded by a buffer of fluid, that is not enough to protect it against sudden extreme movements. Think of what happens to you when you sit in a car and the driver suddenly brakes: you first fly forward and then backward. Something similar happens to the brain: your brain hits the skull from the inside at the front and the back. And if the shock is too strong to be absorbed by the fluid, you get a concussion – to simplify a bit. Symptoms of concussion usually resolve within a month, but they can persist. A helmet absorbs part of the impact to the head, comparable to the crumple zone at the front of a car, and protects the brain.

That brings me to another reason why I wear a helmet.  I personally know someone who had a severe bike accident (no helmet) and since then cannot really smell or taste anymore. Not only can he not enjoy food anymore but he has a constant fear that he might be smelly but cannot tell. The area of the brain which is essential for these functions lies in the lower frontal part of the brain that is vulnerable to bike accidents.

A helmet can protect our precious brain.

Image made by Roselyne Chauvin

Our head is like a watermelon

When I was a child, a policeman visited our school and taught us how to bike. One day he took us out to the schoolyard and dropped a watermelon on the asphalt. Boom. All in pieces. Then he put another watermelon in a helmet. Ta-daaa! The watermelon was fine. It became clear to me that the helmet could protect my head with my precious little brain inside. In 2012 approximately 40% of reported traffic accidents in the Netherlands involved cyclists. A third of these accidents resulted in damage to the head. Why don’t many people wear helmets then?

Yes, it might feel too warm for a helmet in summer. Yes, you have to carry it around (I usually lock mine to my bike). Yes, people might look at you weird and teenagers passing by may sometimes even shout at you. Yes, you cannot wear extraordinary hairdos. However, for me none of these is reason enough to not protect my brain. How about you?

Written by Claudia Lüttke. Claudia is a PhD candidate who investigates how our senses work together. Read more about Claudia’s research in an earlier Donders Wonders blog here (in Dutch).

Edited by Marisha.

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