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Why Brain Training Helps Older Drivers

A study just published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society has been much publicized recently (see for instance, this L.A. Times article). The study showed that a computer-based brain training program succeeded in reducing at-fault car crashes for older drivers. The effects of the training lasted over 6 years.

This result made the news as one of the rare transfers of brain training benefits to everyday life.  Why was this training successful and not others? Probably because brain training needs to be specific and not general. If you practice playing baseball you do not expect to get better at playing basketball, right? The same is true of brain functions: If you train your language skills, do not expect to get better at memorizing numbers.

Driving is quite automatic for most of us. However this apparently simple activity relies on several complex cognitive abilities or brain functions. To drive one needs to, at least:

  • Read and follow road signs (Brain function: language comprehension)
  • Pay attention to everything in the environment (Visual attention)
  • Anticipate what may happen on the road (Decision-making, planning, motor skills)
  • React quickly to what happens on the road (Processing speed)

Based on the above analysis it looks like improving and/or maintaining a) visual attention and b) processing speed is crucial to stay safe on the road.

This is exactly what the brain training program used in the recently publicized study did. The goal of Dr. Karlene Ball and Dr. Jerri Edwards, lead scientists of the study, was to train older drivers’ visual attention and processing speed. To do so they train the older drivers’ Useful Field of View (or UFOV), which is the visual area over which information can be extracted at a brief glance without eye or head movements. Previous studies have shown that the performance on a test assessing one’s UFOV is highly correlated with the risk of car accidents

UFOV assessment and training programs were primarily developed by Dr. Karlene Ball and Dr. Daniel Roenker more than 20 years ago. Originally, these programs were made available through Visual Awareness Inc. In 2008, Posit Science acquired Visual Awareness. The latest version of the programs is now incorporated into Posit Science’s DriveSharp and InSight visual training programs.

In many studies, including this most recent one, brain training of visual attention and processing speed using the UFOV programs has proven successful in reducing a) the risk of driving cessation, b) the risk of dangerous driving maneuvers and c) at-fault automobile crashes.

In sum, it looks like brain training can be quite successful in improving everyday life when the right brain functions are trained. There is no general solution: Each program needs to be evaluated based on one’s goals and needs.

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To go further in understanding the role of brain training for older drivers:

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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