Summertime, and the Driving is Easy...
(Hey!--Turn here!)

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
June 17, 2004

Approximate location of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Summer is a great time for road trips. We here in the US definitely have a long-standing romance with our cars. Romantic might not be how my husband would describe car trips with me, however, because I'm a backseat driver: I try to help drive the car even though I am not driving!

My compulsion is supported by a study that shows that the brain of the passenger shows the same pattern of activity as the brain of the driver. So when the driver makes a mistake, the passenger feels like he made a mistake, too. In both the driver and the passenger, the same brain regions (medial frontal cortex and motor cortex) show activity.

Using electrical recording methods, researchers gathered data from the frontal brain regions of 18 test subjects. Test subjects watched a screen and had to identify which way an arrow was pointing. At the same time, an observer watched the test from across a table. The screen was two-sided so that each person could see the arrows. During the task, the observer's brain showed activity in the motor cortex of the brain, the same area that lit up in the test subject. When the test subject made a mistake, however, the anterior cingulate cortex (an area in the medial frontal cortex) lit up -- in both the test subject and the observer. This part of the brain is involved in learning and in pain perception.

So, when a driver makes a mistake, the passenger reacts as if he personally made that mistake. This mechanism may help people to learn by observation only. Studies have shown that learning by observing uses similar mechanisms to learning by doing. So next time people coach your driving, understand that they might not be able to help it -- their brain is reacting as if they are driving, too.

References and Further Information:

  1. van Schie, H.T., Mars, R.B., Coles, M.G. and Bekkering H. Modulation of activity in medial frontal and motor cortices during error observation, Nature Neurosci., 7:549-554, 2004.
  2. "Passengers Feel the Driver's Anxiety, Too," by Anahad O'Connor, The New York Times, April 27, 2004.

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