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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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