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This Is Your Brain Behind The Wheel

Have you ever wondered why sometimes, when you’re just driving for a long time, some of your best daydreams seem to just bubble up out of nowhere?  Or have you ever wondered why it is that talking on a hand-held phone is so distracting to a driver, even though you’ve got your eyes and the road and can steer perfectly well with one hand.

It’s all down to your brain and the fact that you are, quite literally, in two minds about everything.

OK, here’s a quick guide to the architecture of your brain without getting too technical and requiring you to understand words like “hippocampus” and “hypothalamus”.  Your brain looks rather like a walnut, what with the curly knobbly bits and the two halves.  It’s the two halves that are important here, as they have different jobs to do.

The left side of your brain is the Mr Spock side of your brain.  It handles logic, maths and decision-making, and also contains your language centres and the music centres.  The right-hand side is the Michaelangelo side of your brain: artistic, emotional and creative, but also in charge of visual perception and space (hand–eye coordination stuff). You could call them the yin and yang sides if you like. (See the illustration – taken from an ad put out by Mercedes-Benz .)


Usually, when you’re driving, the two halves of the brain can get on pretty well.  The left-hand side makes the decision about where you’re going to go and why you need to go there, and keeps track of the road rules.  The right-hand side monitors what’s going on around you and tells you to make all those minor adjustments on the brake, accelerator and steering wheel.  If you’ve been driving a manual for a long time, the right-hand brain will also handle gear changes; if you’re new to manual gears, the left-hand brain will manage a lot of this until the movements become automatic and the right brain can do them.  We call this “doing it without thinking”, which is a bit of an insult to the right brain, which thinks in a different way.

If you are driving along without much outside input – down a familiar road in moderate traffic, for example – the left side of your brain doesn’t have a lot to do and it allows your right brain to dominate.  Your right brain is busy with the driving and the left brain will happily let it dominate. While it’s dominating, your right brain can also get creative and all those interesting, quirky daydreams can come bubbling up, with the left brain playing a supporting role.

However, if you’re talking on the phone, the left brain is dominating, what with having to process the words coming in and possibly making decisions at the same time. Unlike the right brain, the left brain is a bit of a bully and a drama queen, and it won’t let the right brain have much of a say if it’s busy.

So there you are, talking on the car phone and your left brain is in full command.  Right brain can perceive an upcoming hazard – that slow driver who hits the brakes heaps ahead of you, for example, or a busy intersection.  But the left brain, busily engaged in processing words and making decisions, tells the right brain to shut up. It’s not until the right brain starts screaming at the right brain that the left brain drops command and lets the right brain do what it needs to by managing what it can see and the spatial relationships (i.e. what’s around you and how close you are to it or if you’re on a collision course).  It all happens within seconds, but that switch from left-dominated to right-dominated does slow your reaction time.

So why doesn’t somebody talking in the car to you distract you like a phone does? Simply because the other person has two sides to their brain and their own right brains telling them about how fast you’re both approaching the intersection or that slow driver ahead of you, and the emotional/relationship nous to back off from the conversation.  Someone on a phone doesn’t have that right-brain input at that time, so he/she will keep yakking regardless.

A lot of modern active safety systems attempt to replicate what your right brain does: detecting upcoming problems and taking action.

This is a very simple overview of your amazing brain and the highly complex processes that go on when you’re behind the wheel.  Some people are more right-brain than others; some people can switch from left to right quickly.  But even this little glimpse should give you an idea of why cell phones, car phones and too many road signs are so distracting.