A cutting-edge brain-scanning helmet is being used to measure how racing drivers can improve their performance by using mental training techniques. The proposed prototype is part of a ground-breaking study exploring the brain as the next frontier of performance and how mental training techniques used by professional drivers could help us all to cope with stressful situations in everyday life.
Top athletes have used mental training techniques to fine-tune their performances for some time. However, use of these sport psychology techniques has gradually become more widespread as people look at different ways of dealing with the hectic pace of an increasingly connected world. The study will look at how mental training methods used by pro drivers might help us to improve our own mental performance.
An EEG (electroencephalogram) headset will be used to monitor brainwaves in 'The Psychology of Performance study', which has been developed by Ford Performance, the motorsport branch of the US car maker, in collaboration with King's College London and tech partner UNIT9.
EEG technology, which measures electrical activity in the brain, is ideal for the experiment due to its versatility and ability to be used outside a lab environment to study brainwaves in real-life scenarios, or in this case, the next best thing – virtual reality.
"By using state-of-the-art VR and EEG methods, we hope to see what the effects of fatigue due to driving are and whether mental training techniques can help a driver sustain focus and alertness for longer periods of time," says Dr Elias Mouchlianitis of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London.
Participants – who will include some of the world's leading drivers as well as members of the public – will take part in a VR driving simulation, where their concentration and reaction times will be measured.
The virtual reality-based test offers an immersive challenge designed to recreate the driving experience as authentically as possible.
"VR is extremely effective because the subject is completely absorbed in your experiment; there are fewer distractions and you can control everything about the world that surrounds them in very precise ways," says Dr Mouchlianitis. "In VR, you can easily design an experiment to change the difficulty of different dimensions of the skill of driving in a controlled way."
Both performance and brain activity will be measured throughout the test. While some of the participants in the study will have used mental training and meditation techniques developed by sport psychologists prior to the experiment, some will have had no preparation at all. The idea is that experts will examine the different performance data between these two groups to measure the effect that the mental training has on the brain, and in turn, on performance.
At the same time, Ford is developing a prototype EEG race helmet for their motorsport team to use in live simulator testing. Whilst maintaining the helmet form, product designers are working to integrate the EEG headset and sensors into it, so drivers' brainwaves can be measured in 'real-life' practice environments.
It is hoped that the results, which will be released in November, will help us understand more about the effect of various meditation and visualisation techniques and how we can apply them in stressful situations – whether that's behind the wheel or giving a presentation at work.
Performance under pressure is an essential skill that could benefit all of us, both in dealing with challenging situations and also helping us performing better at various day-to-day tasks.
The pioneering study will carry on Ford's tradition of innovation, developing various technologies to create new ways of keeping us safe on the roads and improve our lives in other ways. The company continually teams up with scientists and makers across a number of fields in order to push the boundaries of innovation, with the upcoming study being the latest example.
Want to find out if these mental training techniques really do have an effect on the brain? Come back in November to find out.