Driving a car requires a lot of attention...in special circumstances

Do you think your brain does not work much when you are driving your car? Think again. Think back to your first lessons...when you could barely keep the car in the right lane while the instructor was talking to you. Of course, after some practice you got accustomed to driving your car and it seems to be going automatically. Yes, your brain has indeed gone into the automatic pilot so that precious (conscious) attention can be used for other things like talking through a complex presentation you have to give tomorrow. But still, your brain is working and that takes up a lot of energy. However, it takes a whole lot more energy when more attention is required for safe driving. You have certainly experienced this whenever you were in your car on a sunny day and talking to your passenger next to you about your presentation, due the next morning. Because you are enthusiastic about this presentation you both talk a lot, raising your voices and coming up with more ideas about the presentation. Suddenly, the sun disappears and a thunderstorm is coming towards you. In seconds, it starts to rain heavily. All of a sudden it seems like there's a lot more traffic because most cars are reducing their speed considerably. You stop talking, reducing your voice, both hands on your steering wheel, initiating the windscreen wipers. Your conversation has changed dramatically: its speed, its depth, its enthusiasm, all has dropped significantly. How come? If your brain was not working, or only on auto-pilot, why not continuing on auto-pilot? Well, the circumstances have changed and require a lot more conscious effort, namely: attention. We have to divide our limited attentional capacity between safe driving and talking about complex things. Now that you have to watch the cars around you more closely because they are a lot more and they are nearby, this takes up more attention. Less attention can be spend on generating (complex) ideas about your presentation. To be sure, such ideas can still be generated, but it takes more effort and time. So you talk less and slower.

An important lesson here: attentional control (be it focused or selective attention or divided attention) kicks in as soon as you cannot rely on your auto-pilot systems in your brain. The main advantage of an auto-pilot is energy-efficiency and reliability: it does things quickly, reliably in a specific standard order. The main disadvantage of an auto-pilot is the opposite: lack of instant flexibility. Thát is where your attention kicks in. And that will cost you...effort and energy for the sake of flexibility. 

Attention and vision: when driving does not mean seeing everything

When you are driving you seem to see everything on the road, sometimes boasting to your passenger that you never had an accident before. It all seems a breeze, you seem to see all traffic around you. You're in a city with a lot of roundabouts and in approaching the second one you look at your left and you don't see any cars coming. You look quickly at your right and you'll see no one on your lane but you do see a car approaching from the right who has to stop for you. While your attention is drawn to that car, you'll already have decided to go straight ahead on that roundabout. Just as you start giving more gas, your passenger screams 'watch out'. In a reflex you hit the brakes. A car from the left turns up and barely misses you...you had not seen this car! You were sure it wasn't there a split second ago. Scientifically of course, that can not be true. The roundabout is large and flat so you have a full 180 degrees view. Hell, you can even see the opposite traffic approaching the roundabout. How come, you did not see this car?

Well, to be exact: I can measure and prove to you that you must have 'seen' this car seconds before. Meaning, the form of the car was reflected in your eyes, just for several milliseconds, but it wás there. Your eyes working perfectly, did register this car. So, when only vision was needed for driving, you had stopped correctly in time for this car. However, seeing things does nót happen with your eyes only. Your brain has to process the images it gets from your eyes. And that is where attention kicks in again. In this example, it can be shown that your attention was not directed towards this car from the left but towards the car approaching from the right. Because of your eagerness to drive through without slowing down much (a common motivation) you had focused on the car from the right which in your (automatic) calculations was the most potentially dangerous object in your planned way. You had not given this evaluation to the car from the left, probably because it was not that close. But another quick calculation or judgment was made by you automatically: the car from the left could also choose to exit the roundabout to the right, before it would cross your path. Due to this kind of split-second (automatic) calculations in your brain, in combination with your attention being drawn towards something else, you did not see that car from the left anymore. But it can also be proven that that same car was indeed in your visual field, although on the far left, but still...it was there in your visual field. But it was not given that much attention to interfere with your actions. This is the main reason accidents do happen, even at roundabouts. I repeat: we do nót see with our eyes, we see with our attentional system. Therefore it is much more important to test whether our attentional systems are adequate than to test whether our eyesight is sharp. Even with a lesser eyesight, the car from the left could have been noticed by someone with adequate attention.

Een interesting phenomenon what has something to do with what I explained above is change blindness. There are some very nice YouTube movies about it. It is the phenomenon of not seeing changes, unless they are pointed at by so-called motion detectors. Especially, experiments with photos are well-known and intriguing. Take 1 photo and photoshop this and add something to it, something usual (not a large stain or scratch). Then show these 2 photos on your computer screen right after another, but with a black screen between it. The time of the presentation of the black screen should be in hundreds of milliseconds. In fact, you can play with this interval but the effect can only be shown when you do not have an after-image of the first photo (to compare with the next one). With the right speed of showing these 2 quite different pictures you will NOT notice any differences between the 2 photos! It is hard to imagine right now but just try some experiments you can find on the Internet (Google ‘change blindness’). You will be amazed and it is very amusing to see how your family does not see it either.

An explanation on Wikipedia for change blindness is as follows: more attention is given to certain parts of a picture so that other parts will not be noticed. However, this is somewhat vague. What is ‘more’ attention? Does this mean that you focus more on other parts of the pictures instead of the right ones where the differences are? I don’t think so. Even parts where the differences really are can be seen and examined by you, just as long as other parts of the photo. But still you can miss these differences. How come? 

Well, to spot a difference you have to make a comparison in your brain (somewhere). Just because of the placement of a black screen between the 2 pictures, only 1 thing is not taking place: movement. Our visual system is made for movement. When there are no movements in our visual field, we do nót see them! The reason we can see unmoving objects is because we use ‘saccades’= quick and unconscious small eye movements. They result in constant movements in our visual field so that we can see an unmoving object. Just stare for a couple of minutes to your toilet floor that probably has tiles on them. Focus on one crossing and try not to blink with your eyes. You will quickly notice that the lines and crossings of the tiles surrounding this focus point will suddenly start fading. You will not see them anymore. However, when you blink or move your eyes then they will be there again.

The visual system has a lot of motion detectors, when they see movement they pass that through our attentional system. Only thereafter we will be conscious of this movement. When placing 2 pictures behind each other with a black screen in between, the motion detectors will not be triggered enough to really draw your attention toward a region that is different on a photo. This not noticing a change is even present in social circumstances where you try to explain the way to someone in a city. When suddenly your view towards that man is blocked, say by two passing movers with a large painting, and another man quickly turns up holding the road map exactly as the first man, you will probably not notice this change. Unbelievable? Well, just look at the YouTube movies and be amazed! It has all to do with your attentional system. When you do not care much, give not much attention to the man you talk to, then such change blindness can occur. 

It occurs when you actually did not expect it, you did not calculate or plan it. In other words: you’ll just see what you expect or think you’ll get to see! You do not really see the reality or truth, you just make it up! The same thing you can notice whenever you start reading a recently finished manuscript and you want to filter out all typos. Everyone knows that even after having reread the paper a couple of times, you still manage to find typos. That is because we read what we think (or plan) to read. We do not actually read all real printed letters. So pausing a little hours and doing something else instead, can erase your mindset so the planning processes in your brain are erased. You’ll really start reading what actually IS written on paper. And only thén you will notice more typos.

Familiar and unfamiliar routes: another example of attentional processes in driving

When driving in an unknown area, you normally are more tense and it costs you more energy. Why is that? I mean, I could set up a route for you in an unknown area with exactly the same amount of turns to the left or right as a route which is quite familiar to you. Still, I'll bet you say afterwards that driving down the unfamiliar route was far more exhausting. This is again an example of how your attentional system is involved in handling a car in traffic. Because your attentional control system can not calculate beforehand where to turn and where to watch out, it is working overtime. It is constantly monitoring almost everything because it does not know in advance when to slow down. This is certainly not driving on an automatic pilot and that is the case when the route is familiar. Then, your attentional system is resting and relying on your autopilot system. Indeed, it knows exactly when to kick in and when to rest again. In this example, also memory plays an important role. Of course, you must retrieve the familiar route from out of your long term memory in such a smooth manner, that the attentional system can fully rely on the automatic pilot system. That is one of the reasons that driving in a formerly familiar neighborhood for an Alzheimer patient (form of dementia), can be exhausting. 

Seeing things...reliably? Signs on the road

Most people think they see everything and can read every sign perfectly when having a clear and sharp eyesight. However, reading signs, just as reading a book, requires memory processes and again, attention. Memory processes are needed to relate what you see as letters to meaningful items called words. Again, you can see letters, in fact all letters are 'in' your eyes, but the brain still has to interpret those letters. Furthermore, psychology studies have shown that we do not have to read every letter of a word to still read the right words. A sentence like: 'The ambulance was on .ts w.y to the car accainedt that happened earlier' can be read quite normally without much delay. The brain is constantly calculating (planning) what comes next and due to the other words it is driven to specific (expected) words. This calculating and expecting and constant planning happens all the time. A large advantage of this is speed and accuracy. Most of the time this planning process is correct, but sometimes it is dead wrong. Especially when speed increases and decisions are largely based on such planning processes, without time to correct them, errors do occur. That happens when you're driving in unfamiliar territory on a 6-lanes highway and you have to read six large sign billboards with destinations that look similar. For example, Amsterdam or Amstelveen can then be switched erroneously. I can read Amsterdam but in reality I looked at the Amstelveen sign, taking the wrong lane. Without sufficient time to check upon our automatic planning processes in the brain, errors increase. We usually see what we think we see. That is the reason modern navigation systems have lane guidance.

Finally: some tips for driving safely

On the basis of the above I can give you some more tips to drive even safer than you do now. Actually its a practical translation of the knowledge above.

Tip 1
Please plan consciously to watch all to be expected traffic at every crossing or roundabout. Prepare for this traffic mentally. Always! This probably prevents that your automatic prediction/planning system will be in charge for almost 100%. When that happens, your attention is truly much less, with a bigger chance that you will not be able to manage unexpected events.

Tip 2
Drive more slowly on roundabouts or crossings. When your attention is a bit smaller then, you can be on time to correct any mistakes you or others make. Because you have given yourself more time. This is the basis of the training I developed once: Time Pressure Management (TPM).

Tip 3
Use a good navigation system! Such a system takes care of most calculations you normally had to do when driving so now you can focus your limited attention even better on the other traffic. But use a very clear screen and a very good auditory guidance system. I myself can navigate perfectly with my Nokia E71 navigation just by listening to the instructions. Navigation systems mean more stress free driving so attention can be focused more on what really matters.

Whenever you have more tips I’ll be glad to hear them. Please use the comment form to share them with me. With good tips I will put them on my site so we can all reduce the mortality rate in traffic. Because…dying in traffic…isn’t that very sad indeed?

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