Sunday, May 31, 2009

Racetracks and Shared Cognition

A friend of mine agreed to teach her 16-year-old niece to drive. She began with a brief lecture on attentive driving – keep your eyes on the road ahead at all times, but also monitor your instrument panel, glance regularly at all three rear-view mirrors, know what is going on to your left and right… A look of panic came into her niece’s eyes. “Nobody can do all that at the same time!” But we do, of course, and most of the time we are barely aware that we are doing it (although it is not wise to add things like talking on the phone or applying make-up).

I was reminded of this story recently when I had the opportunity to drive on a racetrack. It was a privately-hosted “track day” at Road America in Elkhart Lake, one of the world’s great road courses, and I jumped at the opportunity. I wisely took my son, who has had some racing experience, as my passenger and coach. I drove my little Volvo hatchback. Other participants were driving Porsches, Corvettes, Cobras and Ferraris and actually knew what they were doing, which was a bit intimidating. Oh, and it rained all day, making the track greasy and treacherous. It is a bit disconcerting to glance in the rear-view mirror and see a Corvette sliding sideways. I was also keenly aware that my insurance would not cover any mishap that occurred on the track. What made me think this would be fun?

Take all the things we normally monitor while driving and multiply them by a factor of five on a racetrack. Then add the 14 turns on the Road America course, each of which must be approached in a different manner (when and how hard to brake; where to hit the apex and in what gear, etc.) I quickly discovered I simply could not process all this information at the same time, and turned the corners over to Colin, who calmly and clearly guided me (“Move left. Don’t brake yet. Now! Second gear. Turn! Accelerate!”) I could focus on the yellow Ferrari coming up behind me and the puddle to my right and leave the corners to him. Still I needed to pit after every three or four laps because I could only maintain mental focus that long (I claimed that it was to allow the brakes to cool when it was actually my brain that needed to cool down).

Later that evening I described the experience to my wife, the psychologist, who nodded wisely. “Cognitive overload,” she explained. “You are 61 years old and you can only maintain that kind of load for so long.” I wonder how long I could have maintained it if I had not had a second (and younger) brain in the seat next to me. I got by with a little help from my son.

People who are in a close relationship over a long period of time develop something called “shared cognition,” which means that they pool their mental resources without even being aware that they are doing it. One person drives, the other reads the map. One remembers to send birthday cards to family members; the other remembers to lock the doors at night. Two heads really are better than one.

On the racetrack, I went back and forth between “what in the world was I thinking?” and “I can’t wait to do this again!” I will likely return next year. But I certainly will not try to do it with just one brain.


rick in cos said...

how ironic, I read this great little article the day after our family drove down to Pueblo and attended a Demolition Derby at the state fair grounds. On a dirt track, no less. At least there was a stark contrast in what we saw and what you experienced.
Once, as a rookie, I was in a pursuit heading into Detroit and I was doing about 85 at 2 in the morning and headed right into a red light...that's when I figured out what they mean by "tunnel vision" and I never forget that lesson (yeah, he got away and we both lived to tell about it).
People who drive like you describe regularly, for a living, not only receive more training, but train their brains to successfully and INTUITIVELY process all the information. Not to say they/we don't mess up, but it is easier when your cognitive processes are used to doing that.
Just like, you're used to public speaking, while others stammer and hem and haw, especially if something goes wrong and they need to deviate from the script. No problem for you...see how it works!

John said...

You're right, of course - it was a new cognitive process for me. But put me under a spotlight in front of 800 people and I can pretty much handle anything that gets thrown at me (metaphorically speaking; I am not referring to rotten fruit). I just added a picture to the post.