Movement and mobility are as old as mankind itself. However, the demands of modern life mean that most people lead a sedentary existence. For evolutionary reasons, people should walk ten to twenty kilometers every day. Movement keeps you fit. It also keeps your brain healthy – after all, there is nothing as good as physical exercise for clear thinking and a keen memory. Today, driving is the world’s most popular way of getting around. But it’s also more than that: Every trip involves a permanent stream of assessments and decisions that is excellent exercise for the brain. Like a muscle, the brain can be trained to enhance performance – even at an advanced age.
In other words, driving puts our brains in top gear. This is something that our cars should support more effectively. In any single moment – i.e. two to three seconds – a person can take in three facts, four at most. If more information than that is given for us to make a decision, we are unable to handle it. It is important to bear this in mind, for example when designing warning and driver assistance systems. What is more, we invariably anticipate situations when driving – this is done in a cycle lasting roughly three seconds. Automotive development needs to take this on board to an even greater extent in future. The aim of the automotive industry should be for us to be able to intuitively understand, operate and use all facets of our vehicles.
In brain research, cars and technical devices are now seen as part of our bodies, a scientific concept known as “embodiment”. This means that we steer our cars as if they were part of our bodies. However, the connection to this “body part” is lost when there is no visual contact. Take, for example, an aerodynamically optimized car body that no longer enables the bonnet and tailgate lid to be seen perfectly from the driver’s seat. In this case, “embodiment” is severely impaired. Even with cameras and other technical aids, drivers are significantly less at ease with a car that does not have these visual coordinates than they are when its dimensions are clearly visible. If the rear view camera angle differs from the driver’s viewing angle, this will also reduce “embodiment”.
The human brain ultimately requires simplicity and easily processed information. In view of this, the automotive industry would do well to think hard about how to make its complex systems easier for humans to use.
PROF. DR. ERNST PÖPPEL
is one of the world’s most prominent brain researchers. Since 1976, he has been Professor of Medical Psychology at the University of Munich (LMU). He is also Scientific Director of the Parmenides Center for the Study of Thinking and heads the Generation Research Program run by the internationally active Human Science Center at the LMU. In addition, he lectures as a guest professor in Innsbruck and Beijing.