I’ve been digging around in the scientific literature recently in search of research investigating racing drivers’ brains. Having stumbled a handful of pretty incredible facts I thought I’d devote this month’s blog to sharing these with you.
Over many thousand of hours of practice and experience the driver’s brains become honed to perform the incredibly demanding cognitive task of getting round the track, lap after lap, as fast as human possible, without spinning out of control. This is much more physically demanding than most people imagine. For instance, the forces delivered through the steering wheel when travelling at up to 200 mph on a typical track can reach a magnitude equivalent to carrying 9 kg in each hand. Maintaining the intensely focused concentration required to deal with the stream of rapidly changing sensory information also requires razor sharp reflexes and amazingly fast reaction times. In fact, one study demonstrated that there is no overlap in the spread of reaction times between elite and amateur racing drivers (as measured by the Vienna Reaction Apparatus). In other words, the slowest reaction times for the elite drivers across the whole experiment were still faster than the best reaction times logged by the amateurs.
Another biological specialisation exhibited by the elite drivers is their capacity to produce adrenaline. Their adrenal glands are larger than the rest of us so that they can produce more of this vital performance-enhancing hormone under high pressure racing circumstances. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the brain, heart and skeletal muscles, inducing an elevated heart rate and ventilation, whilst narrowing the blood vessels that feed other organs like the digestive system. This improves reaction times and the strength of muscular contractions to enable fight or flight to take place; or both as is the case in racing drivers. This is not specific to racing drivers. Athletes from many different sports have been found to have an enlarged adrenal gland, something referred to in the literature as the Sports Adrenal Medulla.
A further study compared the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline (primary neurotransmitter of the sympathetic nervous system) in elite racing drivers as they cycled to exhaustion in a staged bike ride versus whilst racing their cars. They were found to produce double the quantity of adrenaline whilst racing, as measured via detection of metabolites in their urine. I found this finding particularly extraordinary. You might have imagined that exercising to exhaustion would be more demanding on the body, but it just goes to show how cognitively demanding racing is. Presumably the extra adrenaline is required to help the brain deal with cognitive demands.
Several studies have scanned the brains of elite racing drivers using fMRI revealing that there is relatively little activity across the cortical surface compared to amateur drivers. This is thought to reflect the fact that racing is simply less taxing for the elite drivers. Much more of the cognitive processing required to manoeuvre the car around a constantly changing terrain at great speed can be handled subconsciously, freeing up precious conscious resources for dealing with unexpected occurrences.
Their extensive training also seems to have led to some racing driving-specific brain specialisations as they appear to exhibit greater activation in the retrosplenial cortex. This area is known to be involved in creating a view-independent model of environment being navigated. In other words it enables them to build a picture of the whole track in their mind’s eye so that they have an awareness of what to expect beyond the next turn. This skill is clearly vital to staying on the ideal racing line.
I recently pitted my own amateur racing skills against Christoffer – the official test driver of the Koenigsegg supercar – in an ultra-realistic simulator of Spain’s famous Ascari race track. The real thing, which he drives on a daily basis, is capable of producing 1,400 brake horsepower! Putting that into context, that’s two and a half times more powerful than a top of the range Ferrari! I don’t think it will come as any surprise to hear that he smashed me out of the park.
In addition to these monthly blogs you can also follow me on Twitter for a daily download of the most interesting neuroscience research to hit the press. In addition to my first best-selling book Sort Your Brain Out, my second Mice Who Sing For Sex is now available to pre-order and tells the story of over a hundred weird and wonderful nuggets of research from full the length and breadth of scientific research.