Recent Study Claims Driving Makes You Dumber Over Time
Researchers at the University of Leicester claim that spending several hours behind the wheel every day can adversely affect the human brain — sending the IQ scores of middle-aged Brits into the gutter.
In the experiment, researchers examined the lifestyles of over than 500,000 British residents between 37 and 73 for over five years, giving them routine intelligence and memory assessments. Those who drove more than two to three hours a day typically had lower brainpower at the beginning of the study, which continued to decline at a faster rate than those who did little to no driving.
Allow me to rephrase that for those of you with an exceptionally long daily commute: U.K. smart scientists say driving a whole bunch maybe makes you stupider.
“Cognitive decline is measurable over five years because it can happen fast in middle-aged and older people. This is associated with lifestyle factors such as smoking and bad diet — and now with time spent driving,” Kishan Bakrania, a medical epidemiologist at the University of Leicester, told The Sunday Times.
“We know that regularly driving for more than two to three hours a day is bad for your heart,” he explained. “This research suggests it is bad for your brain, too, perhaps because your mind is less active in those hours.”
While that is likely true if you’re a terrible motorist who immediately checks out when behind the wheel, that’s not the fault of the drive so much as it is the fault of the driver. Operating a vehicle is a complex and involved activity that persistently requires one to solve and anticipate new problems. Responsible drivers are constantly exercising their brain.
That’s not anecdotal evidence either. A study, published in Nature earlier this year, suggested exactly that in its introduction:
“Driving is a complex everyday activity that requires multiple types of sensory processing, cost-weighted decision making, precise motor control, and other abilities. Even on an empty road, drivers must continuously operate the steering wheel and pedals in consideration of complicated vehicle dynamics. Driving is also a vigilance task, which is often undertaken for prolonged periods of time, and carries a constant risk of injury or death resulting from collisions. Despite this, driving is commonly thought to provide pleasure, at least, in certain circumstances or among car enthusiasts.”
The study posits that driving should exhibit a similar brain morphology to any other developed skill, like learning an instrument or solving a puzzle. And, after collecting structural brain images from 73 healthy young adults (36 drivers and 37 non-drivers), it concluded drivers showcased significantly more volume in the left cerebellar hemisphere — which is associated with cognitive functioning, rather than motor skills.
Giving some credence to the Leicester study, this development plateaus once someone stops improving their abilities. If you stop trying to be a better driver, there’s no obvious mental benefit.
Bakrania suggests that the stress associated with driving could cause mental fatigue, which has been linked to cognitive decline. However his study also examined time spent watching television, which negatively affected IQ progression, and time spent on the computer, which positively affected it.
Frankly, the broad nature of the study is a little disconcerting. It might simply be that sedentary activities are bad for mental health, which driving can certainly be if you’re not willing to engage with it. Our advice to concerned motorists is to put on something mentally stimulating, find something engaging to drive, and change your route whenever possible.
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