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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(January 2003)

I am fascinated by how the brain takes in information and then decides what to do about it. As I look at the street ahead, the retinas of my eyes receive tiny images ó jerky, upside-down, and mostly fuzzy. From these, my brain constructs a detailed, ever-changing, three-dimensional picture of my surroundings. Then it predicts the paths of vehicles, pedestrians, dogs etc and decides whether or not they will get in the way, as it controls and navigates a highly complicated machine from A to B.

And thatís just a journey on foot! Driving a car introduces more tasks. How does the brain perform them all simultaneously? Itís only possible because driving involves mostly automatic or semi-automatic actions. The brain can learn and perform an astonishing number of these, leaving our conscious selves to concentrate on hazards, such as the wobbling cyclist ahead.

His or her brain is having to work hard too, by the way. In fact staying upright on a bicycle must be learnt as a totally automatic skill, in which a tilt to one side is instantly corrected by steering slightly towards the same side. And did you realize that when cyclists want to turn left, say, they first have to steer to the right a bit in order to tilt left. This is yet another hazard for motorists.

But if the brain is so clever, why do I have difficulty sometimes in remembering simple things such as what the speed limit is, or which gear I am in? I confess that I often check the gear by glancing down at the rev counter and the speedometer: if the two needles are parallel, then I know Iím in 4th! Perhaps what is interfering with my memory is that the physicist in me is often noticing things and saying: I know why that happened (and maybe I can make a column of it).

Another example of a memory lapse: an American colleague was recently obliged to take a standard driving test, having been in the UK for nearly a year. He was doing well until the red light changed to green at some roadworks on his side of the road. With no facing traffic, he pulled out to the right but forgot to pull in again.

The good news is that he passed the second time. But I would be scared of doing something similar (or worse) if I drive on the Continent ó or else immediately after returning to the UK, having got used to driving on the right. The trouble is that I am distinctly aware of the automatic nature of my actions when driving (thereís a paradox for you!). If I can overcome this fear and I drive south to try out les autoroutes, I will let you know.

Peter Soul

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