Driving may be seen as a right of passage, but it requires years before it’s mastered.
Learning to drive is an activity that, like any other, requires practice to master. Although many drivers began learning during their teenage years, many more years of repetitive driving often pass before the skills become committed to your procedural memory, the portion of long-term memory (LTM) dedicated to storing information. Procedural Memory helps in using your mind and body to successfully carry out the “procedures” required to complete a task, such as driving a vehicle.
Developing Your Procedural Memory To Drive is a Three Stage Process
When a person begins the learning process to become a safe driver, a three-step process occurs before the skills become semi-automatic. These stages are:
The cognitive phase
Where the skills required are learned one by one. With driving, this includes tasks such as learning the meaning of signs and the rules of the road, as well as developing muscle memory. Muscle memory allows your body to quickly react to situations as needed to effectively operate a vehicle.
The associative phase
Where beginning skills are repeated until they become automated. This is also the phase where ineffectual patterns and/or skills are eliminated as your LTM writes a procedural program that has been shown (through practice) to be effective.
The autonomous phase
Where the acquired skill patterns are perfected over time. If you are middle aged, for example, you are likely to be a safer driver than you were as a teenager, even though you apply less conscious thought to the process.
Sleeping Soon After Practicing Shortens the Learning Process
Studies clearly show that when a person experiences REM sleep soon after practicing a complex new skill, the skill will be remembered more rapidly than if the same person completes a lesson without allowing the brain sufficient sleep time to integrate the skills into the long term procedural memory bank.
Adults helping youngsters learn to drive can reduce the number of driving lessons needed by encouraging their students to sleep soon afterwards, allowing new skills to “stick” to memory more easily.
Factors that Affect Procedural Memory and Driving Abilities
While we are all aware that drinking and driving is a dangerous combination, understanding how external factors (including alcohol and drug use) affect your procedural memory can help explain why driving abilities change in response to different situations.
Since dopamine is a significant neuromodulator involved with procedural memory, any drug and/or disease, which affects dopamine levels will alter your ability to drive a vehicle. In the case of alcohol and the majority of recreational drug use, your ability to drive will be seriously compromised no matter how long you have been practicing your skills.
A number of mental and physical illnesses have also been shown to alter the ability to access procedural memories. Alzheimer patients and those suffering from untreated schizophrenia may reach a point where they are no longer able to drive at all, while other individuals, such as those with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), actually experience an improvement in their procedural memory.
Pay Attention to the Road to Keep Everyone Safer
Unfortunately, some drivers become so habitualised to the task at hand that little conscious thought is applied when driving. To stay safe in your vehicle, as well as to protect others on the road, a certain degree of conscious attention is required regardless of how long you have been driving. Being able to trust that your procedural memory will kick in and help you hit the brakes when you need to is great, but is not a license to treat the task of driving as anything less than the serious endeavour that it is.