Saturday, November 07, 2009

The brain of a racing driver

Is there a basic neuro-physiological difference between the brains of racing drivers and the brain of a normal person? Is a racing driver's preference for understeer or oversteer determined by neuro-physiological differences?

The techniques for answering both of these questions are already available, and have been applied by University College London (UCL) to study the structure and activity of the brains of taxi drivers.

An initial UCL study, published in 2000, used magnetic resonance imaging to discern that the size of the posterior hippocampus was enlarged in a sample of 16 London taxi drivers, compared to a control sample of 50 people. It also found a positive correlation between the length of time a taxi driver had spent in the job, and the volume of the right hippocampus. The hippocampus is associated with navigational abilities, (as well as the establishment of long-term memories), hence it was hypothesized that the posterior hippocampus actually grows in response to the navigational demands placed upon it.

A second study, publicised in 2008, examined the activity of a taxi driver's brain in real-time, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), as the drivers navigated their way through the streets of a computer simulation:

The hippocampus was only active when the taxi drivers initially planned their route, or if they had to completely change their destination during the course of the journey.

The scientists saw activity in a different brain region when the drivers came across an unexpected situation - for example, a blocked-off junction.

Another part of the brain helped taxi drivers to track how close they were to the endpoint of their journey; like a metal detector, its activity increased when they were closer to their goal.

There is no reason why a similar pair of studies could not be conducted on racing drivers. Very sophisticated driving simulators now exist, including ones which can simulate the kinaesthetic sensations of driving a racing car. The latter point is particularly important, because a racing driver can sense the limit of car's adhesion, not merely by hand-eye coordination, but also by the sensations associated with changes of linear momentum and angular momentum. The first mechanism is a sensory feedback loop involving the visual cortex and motor cortex, whilst the latter is likely to be a feedback loop operating between the somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex.

Is any part of the brain in a racing driver enlarged compared to the background population? Do drivers who prefer oversteer have a larger somatosensory cortex than drivers who prefer understeer? Or are the differences purely psychological, rather than neuro-physiological?

I propose that we introduce UCL's fMRI to McLaren's driving simulator, and ask Mr Hamilton and Mr Raikkonen if they'd like to take part in a small medical study...


Hasala said...

It's a bit off topic, but I have heard that McLaren have the most advanced driving simulator in F1. Do you have any insight into its design/function by any chance?

Gordon McCabe said...

I'm afraid I know nothing on this score Hasala.