Living Better Longer

Your Brain Behind the Wheel

August 19, 2015

You've Been Learning to Drive Like a Pro Without Even Noticing

Look through the turn. Keep your eyes up. Don't fixate on the car ahead of you. These are the first lessons in any on-track instruction. It seems like magic: The farther ahead you look, the smoother and faster you get. But Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, says there's no mystery to it. You've spent your whole life training your mind and body for this moment.

"The car's not following your eyes. Your eyes are giving your brain a signal that you want to go to the left or to the right, but your brain is doing the rest by preconsciously coordinating a complex series of behaviors that it has learned over a long time," Whybrow says.

And by "long time," he means years. If you've seen an infant struggle to pick up a stuffed bear, overreaching, falling short, never quite closing her hand in time, you've watched the child build the fundamentals of visual coordination that she'll use for the rest of her life. She's constructing the frames of her proprioception, knowing where her wild limbs are in the space around her.

Those skills become so ingrained that they become habit, requiring no conscious thought. We all have this bit of brilliance. It's why you can close your eyes and put a finger to your lips, your knee, your toes, always knowing exactly where your hands are in relation to the rest of your body without the crutch of sight. It's also why you don't have to think about manipulating a car's pedals, steering wheel, or shift lever. It seems automatic, but your mind is constantly calculating, manipulating nerve and tendon and muscle.

Your brain receives a torrent of input from your senses, every second, every day. While driving, it takes in the press of acceleration on your lower back, the lateral pull of forces on your body as you enter a turn, the sound of the engine moaning toward its limiter. It's all processed, largely without your immediate knowledge.

"Even though we think we're conscious creatures, only about 20 percent of what we do every day is actually driven by conscious awareness," says Whybrow.

The vast remainder, the preconscious, results in fast, efficient, and decisive motor actions. When you keep your eyes up on track, you stop relying on the slow, bumbling conscious part of your brain and call on the liquid-quick preconscious. You cash in on all those years behind you, the hidden mental habits that let you run through the rain, catch a falling coffee mug, or turn the pages of a magazine without a second thought.