To someone who has been doing it for years, driving seems like a relatively basic task: watch the road, accelerate, brake, steer, repeat. In reality, without even realizing, your body and brain sync with your car in amazing ways to create the ultimate half-man/half-machine, super-humanoid monster. Or something like that. Here are five ways your body stays perfectly in tune with your car.
1. In an emergency situation, your chemicals kick in
If a crash or a sudden driving hazard take places right in front of you, your fight-or-flight response kicks in and your body becomes flooded with all sorts of chemicals, like adrenaline. This chemical rush helps prime your muscles for immediate and extreme use to respond to the danger -- you get an elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, and a rush of energy thanks to the conversion of fatty acids into glucose.
One other side effect of all those chemicals is increased long-term memory retention, which is why you can remember every little detail of a near miss, even if you have no idea what you had with your coffee this morning.
2. You develop finely-tuned driving muscle memory
Your body remembers the simple motions required to close the door, buckle your seatbelt, start the car, and operate most of the controls. That’s why when you get in a car you’ve never driven before, everything feels weird, from the pedals to the position of the armrest. But you also develop a rote physical connection to your car, so you never have to think twice about where to find your mirrors, how hard to press the gas, or how hard you turn the wheel.
Think about it this way: close your eyes and pretend you're driving down the street, and suddenly a dog jumps out from nowhere. Did you have to spend precious time thinking about exactly how far to move your foot to hit the brake pedal, or how far you need to turn the steering wheel to swerve out of the way? That's what your muscle memory can do for you.
3. Your inner ear continuously monitors the car's movements
If you’ve ever driven in a heavy rainstorm and noticed the car start to hydroplane just a little bit, that alarming sensation you feel running down your spine is triggered by your inner ear telling you there’s movement in a direction you’re not expecting. That's because the inner ear is responsible for balance, so in effect, it helps ensure that the reality of a situation matches up with what you see and expect. Think of it as an early warning system.
4. You develop eye-car coordination
Whether you’re pulling into a parking space, merging onto a highway, or driving around on a race track, as your eyes pull in information, your brain processes it, and puts your hands and feet to work, ultimately resulting in giving your car the right inputs.
Just as your brain calibrates the length of your arm so you can pick up a pencil simply by firing off electrical signals at an unconscious level, the size and shape of the car you're driving is calibrated, so that you know, to a reasonably accurate degree, where the corners are. Just as your hands are an extension of your brain, so is your car. It's the interaction between the car's systems and your systems that forms most of what we consider driving.
5. Your brainstem helps you pay attention
All the potential threats on the road that you need to watch out for are all registered in a section of the brainstem known as the reticular formation. It's one of the primary components that determines things like sleep and alertness. When activated by those road-going stimuli, the reticular formation keeps you at a higher state of alertness. Of course, the inverse is true, which is why driving through somewhere like Kansas at 3am can be particularly dangerous if you're sleepy to begin with.
Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor, and can be found on Twitter. He would love to see an EEG of his brain while driving, both on the street and on the track.
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