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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.


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

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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