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Cognitive aging…maintaining alertness while driving

February 16, 2011

Maintaining Alertness as we age

Where I notice my level of alertness (or lack of it) most clearly is when I am driving. I expect all of you (young and old) know the experience of driving while thinking of other things….sometimes reaching a destination and wondering how you got there? There is so much in the press recently about talking while driving, listening to the radio or lyrics from a CD, the prohibition of  mobile phones while driving etc.  I haven’t seen much on day-dreaming or planning while you are driving, but it must be a common occurrence in drivers of all ages.

Multi-tasking ability drops off early

The research scientists tell us that dividing our attention between several things at once has a real cost. Although we feel as if we can “multi-task” we are really taking some attention away from one task and giving it to the other. They found that, in general, people’s ability to juggle two tasks drops off in their 30s and then sharply in their 40s. Some researchers have routinely found that even people in their 20s also suffer performance costs when they try to multitask. In other words, they can’t study while texting and answering their phone. Furthermore our attention and processing capacities have clear limits. We end up dividing our capacities across tasks so we do one task better- to the detriment of the other.


When you have long experience of driving, the mechanical responses ( brakes, accelerator, wheel co-ordination) are geared down to the lower parts of your brain and become more or less automatic. This allows you to maintain your focus on the constantly changing requirements on the road ahead.

I have decided to repeat the Posit Science Insight program over again because I feel I need to maintain optimum visual alertness while driving. I have noticed that when I come to a busy intersection I sometimes say to my passenger (who is chatting away) “Just a moment till I navigate across here!”. My brain (and previous learning experience) is telling me to focus.

Of all the brain training programs available I feel comfortable with the Insight program. Having read much in the area of cognition, successful aging and transfer of training, the focus in the Insight  program on ATTENTION, UFOV (universal field of view) and SPEED OF PROCESSING  is both well researched and imaginatively incorporated into the program. Maintenance of many brain functions is crucial for brain health and particularly for driving and being independent..

Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, is director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UCSF and senior author of an interesting research paper. The researchers recorded participants’ brain activity before and after visual perception training, and found a direct link between improved performance and changes in brain activity. After the training, activity had decreased in a key brain area involved in processing visual input. The people who improved the most in the visual training showed the biggest drop in neural activity – as if the brain didn’t have to work as hard to take in information.

When asked if older adults would have to continue repetitive drills in order to maintain improvements Gazzaley says, “Well, I like to keep physically fit. I work out almost every day, and I know that if I stopped, I would get out of shape. Maybe it’s the same with the brain. You’ve got to continue to work it.”

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