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The complex skill of driving very fast

2 years ago

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Dr Otto Lappi | Cognitive scientist


27 July 2022

Suppose we could peer inside a racing driver and see all the processes that go into preparing and executing a single qualifying lap. What would we observe? What physiological and mental processes are operating in there? What are the necessary ingredients to produce a skilled performance? 

As with understanding any complex process, it helps to think in terms of a concrete example. So, let’s say we find our driver in the pit garage, inside the car in the middle of an organised bustle of activity. Cocooned, feet-up in a kind of foetal position, he (let’s assume he’s a ‘he’) is in his own little piece of the universe. He is sitting down, relaxed in a supine position, almost lying – and yet we would see that his heart rate is elevated from its normal well-trained athlete’s resting rate.

The heart responds to tension and excitement even when there is no physical effort. Adrenal glands on top of his two kidneys are pumping cortisol into the bloodstream, where it is carried to every cell in the body. Inside his gloves the eccrine-type sweat glands of his palms have opened small pores in the skin. (This is the mechanism behind sweaty palms; a different type of sweat gland is responsible for body temperature regulation.) These are all among the physiological markers of high sympathetic autonomic nervous system activity. They signify a high state of alertness – the brain is mobilising energy reserves and mental resources in preparation for vigorous action.

Observe next, if you will, his eyes. You will see his pupils are slightly enlarged, as if to take in as much information as possible (another marker of sympathetic autonomic arousal). And his eye movements, like all the movements of his body now, have an air of economy and focus. He’s shut out the rest of the world in his mind – and his eyes have shut out any extraneous stimuli in the visual field. They do not flit nervously around the scene, searching for the next thing, trying to figure out what is happening.

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