Working memory and driving

by eugman1 min read20th Jul 201117 comments

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Working Memory
Personal Blog

I've been trying to learn how to drive and unfortunately I suck at it. Some combination of a stressful teacher and hyperfocusing have made it very difficult to learn. My biggest problem is with the multitasking aspect. Remembering to put on the turn signal while stopping and and checking my speed and watching out for other cars, etc. It's difficult for me, I forget or miss things. One thing I was considering may possibly help is using dual n-back to boost my working memory. Does anyone have any thoughts on the likely effectiveness of this?

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I think that trying to increase your working memory is a high-effort low-benefit avenue to learn to drive (although it might have benefits elsewhere). Many many people have learnt to drive without having to do such things, so I'm (statistically) sure you can too.

I think a better method would be to leverage how the brain works, i.e. "practice makes perfect". I learnt in 2 stages:

  1. learn the mechanics of moving the car around (acceleration, steering, changing gears (in a manual car), using the turn signal etc) until they become almost automatic actions, e.g. when coming up to a corner you think "use the signal" (and just do it) rather than "a corner... what do I do? ... use the signal ... where's the lever? ... which way do I push it?". This is best done in quiet areas, such a mostly empty car park (I don't know where you are so I'm not sure how feasible this is).

  2. introduce the other bits of driving, like other cars, traffic lights, having to navigate somewhere, gradually. So start with light traffic and build up. Start with the teacher prompting every turn you have to make so you don't have to think about longer term directions, and then (in areas you know well) have this ease off to something like "past the " or "go home".

And practise, practise, practise.

(EDIT: correcting formatting)

Funnily enough, some of the working memory training research was about driving! See http://www.gwern.net/DNB%20FAQ#seidler-2010

Let's see, looking at the abstract, the conclusion for driving specifically (emphasis added):

Although the results for older adults are preliminary as participants are still completing the intervention, they show transfer to the complex motor tasks and the driving simulator measures, particularly under dual task conditions. These results suggest that working memory training may be a useful intervention to improve driving in older adults, but has minimal impact in relatively high functioning young adults.

Maybe your WM really really sucks and so it might still be helpful?

In my experience, there is always a "clumsy" period in learning a skill which involves maintaining multiple concurrent physical processes. I don't believe working memory has much to do with overcoming it. It's more typically a case of "wrapping" a complex action into one you can carry out on demand. Right now, pulling over seems like it involves a lot of minor actions (mirror, signal, break, mirror, clutch, gear, cancel signal, handbrake...), but your brain eventually wraps it all up into a single major action.

I would advise changing your instructor if they're a source of stress. Even as a skilled driver, a stressful passenger can seriously impair your ability to concentrate.

Y'know, learning to ride a bike is almost as difficult. You will get the hang of it. I know it, because I'm just now learning this, too.

I've been driving for years and I still make mistakes when there's a stressful person in the car with me. You need a new teacher.

I'm looking to get some additional practice from another person. However, given my relationship with my "instructor", that isn't an option. I'm hoping you can read between the lines here.

That's the advantage of market norms over social norms. Paying service providers buys you the option of firing them. If you have the money, maybe say you want to move on to paid-for driving lessons from pros?

It's an option. Maybe it comes with costs you have decided you do not want to pay, but does it really, and have you really, consciously, rationally evaluated that? Ok, the way I'm asking that suggests I suspect the answer may be "no", but that's just based on general life experience, and the hint provided by the contradiction between your first sentence and your second. I can't speak to your particular situation, however much reading I do between the faint lines you've sketched.

But the bottom line is, if your "instructor" sucks at instructing, then one way or another you need to drop them.

I'm guessing the instructor has a close personal relationship with the OP.

Correct. Attempts to disengage have lead to conflict and threats.

Sounds like a close and hostile personal relationship in which they are abusing some sort of power over you. Sounds like something you need to get away from as soon as possible.

Ironically, having my license is necessary for such a step.

So -- again, just speculating between the lines -- the person supposedly teaching you is instead trying to prevent you from learning, so you can't get your driving licence and leave?

In this case no, the person does want me to drive, the conflict comes from eir arrogance and social debt I owe em. I've made some progress in communicating my concerns to em, so that's good at least. My comment was more of a frustration that the good advice to get away in fact would exacerbate my current predictament in some sense.

You might be overfitting; many people are controlling jerks without being abusive. Yet IAWYC.

I guess so as well. Nevertheless, there are ways of communicating that their instruction isn't working, or to get them to do it differently, that need not leave anyone with hurt feelings. It might even be better for the relationship to look elsewhere. Marriages can break up when one partner tries to give driving lessons to the other.

Seconding dbaupp, there might be people who can consciously manage all details of the various subskills at the same time (I don't know anyone like that though), but if you don't belong to them it's almost certainly far easier to learn to drive the way other people who can't do that do: Practice until the subskills don't require more than a manageable level of conscious attention (for many (most?) people eventually zero attention on well known routes). You could also try looking over your shoulder and imagining yourself using the turn signal whenever you walk around a corner, for example.