Human factors and specifically, cognition, our mental abilities and processes, may not reside exclusively within our heads. Sounds a bit strange right? Well, there are scientists who claim, and in some cases have shown, a coupling of mind and external world, where a sort of agent-world circuitry is created. With the growing trend to view cognition not as a mere output of neural activity within the brain, but more of a distributed phenomenon across mind, body, environment and tools, I thought it may be interesting to explore these elements in the domain of Formula One (F1). So let’s take a look at how modern F1 drivers use their evolutionary advances in thinking and cognition to defeat their adversaries on the circuit.

More than a car and beyond personal training

F1 teams put a lot of R&D money into developing their car, and for good reason, good engineering and design win races. A good trainer and psychologist can also go a long way, but do we really take a holistic view to F1 performance and winning? I think there may be some pieces of the puzzle missing, and looking at cognition from a systems view may provide a sought-after edge. More on that later, let’s start with the very building blocks to performance in the real world; the evolution of human cognition.

The field of cognitive psychology is concerned with the study of mental activity in terms of information processing, while evolutionary psychology attempts to explain this mental activity as adaptations which have evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments. One of the fundamental developments of our mental capabilities is concerned with our ability to make representations of the world in our heads. We develop these inner representations through sensing, perceiving and encoding, and transforming information in various ways. As such, we do not interact directly with the world, rather, with representations of it in our head. Our understanding of and interaction with the world are shaped by the transformations we make with those inner representations. These, representations form the building blocks of what well known Swedish scientist Björn Peter Gärdenfors terms ‘inner worlds’. This has provided us with a particularly useful advantage, where by rather than learning and adapting in the world through physical trial and error (a potentially dangerous venture), we can predict certain results of our actions via complex cortical processes, all within our minds.

The benefit also lies in the fact that representations can be continually transformed and updated very rapidly. For example, a driver can quickly represent a circuit he sees on paper, and then transform it into a very detailed and 3D-like representation all within his mind. As this happens in the driver’s mind (and concurrently in the team principal’s mind), so too it can also occur outside in the real world (such as in telemetry or digital mapping systems). People are said to use ‘external cognition’, where information is created and used in the world around us, rather than purely inside our minds(2). We do this to reduce memory load (like using written reminders) and simplify cognitive effort (like offloading computationally heavy problems onto external media).

Be the ball car

Let’s take an example of a driver assessing the performance of his car. First, he may use information fed to his steering wheel, information direct from his chief engineer over the radio, or even his own physiological senses. Additionally, he may use the natural environment around him (the weather and conditions of the circuit) and couple that with his own intuitive ‘feel’ of how the car is performing. Rather than memorize performance characteristics or envelopes, he could then consult with his chief engineer over radio or simply refer to his LCD screen on his steering wheel, offloading the computationally heavy task of determining engine performance characteristics. Subtle tweaks are made and the driver’s performance improves. By using the environment and tools at hand, the driver’s cognitive capabilities are extended beyond the brain and into the real world, creating an extended driver mind. Provided the driver has adequate experience using such tools, the art of driving becomes intuitive, transparent to him, not requiring much thought or focus. The steering wheel simply becomes an extension of his body.

There is scientific evidence of this agent-world circuitry. Research(3) has shown that neural remapping in chimp brains occurs when they use a particular tool for extended periods of time. Within the brain, humans and chimps share what are called ‘bimodal neurons’, which activate with both sight and touch. These neurons can either represent far space (environment/objects outside one’s reach) or near space (environment/objects within one’s reach). It was found that simply holding a stick causes a remapping of far space to near space, which in effect allows the brain to treat the stick as part of one’s body. Here we see the basic foundations of how tools can become ‘transparent’, and how one’s cognition can involve objects or tools within our environment – whether that be a steering wheel, pneumatic wrench or in our earlier example, a car. The driver’s brain literally adapts to accommodate the car as an extension of the driver. Now that is pretty cool!

Focus, attention and imagination

Research on memory(4) has shown how the cognitive act of building inner worlds suppresses reality and the processing of information in one’s immediate surroundings. Suppressing or placing certain inputs in quarantine is a useful function associated with attention. We often ‘block stuff out’ consciously and unconsciously. By doing so, the driver can focus on developing and transforming their representations, thus enabling a more detailed inner world to develop. There is a critical performance trade-off here however, as the more cognitive effort a driver places on developing a detailed inner world, the less they have available for their primary circuit tasks such as braking, accelerating, defending a line or taking corners. Drivers who have a lot of experience and/or cognitive capacity need less cognitive effort to undertake such tasks, this in turn frees up more cognitive power for visualising detailed inner worlds and reaping the tactical rewards that such mental gymnastics create.

Detached representations are not only linked to our memory, but research(5) suggests that they are also intimately tied to what is known as our ‘emulation neural circuitry’. Stay with me on this, because it’s pretty interesting. Using detached internal representations, emulator circuits within the brain can run offline, simulating feedback via mental imagery. So rather than the primitive ‘closed-loop’ interactions animals have with their environment, we enlightened humans can imagine and predict outcomes of courses of actions in vivid detail. Here we find a separation between imagination and action. Ideas and representations can now augment and replace reaction. For a driver, the advantage here lies in the fact that a plan or strategy can be mentally simulated without any harm to himself or colleagues. The results of these internal simulations, regardless of their accuracy, can then be used to modify the proposed plan. This all happens very quickly, and occurs more often with experienced drivers.

Winning and deceiving

The final point of our evolution of cognition relates intimately with one of the most critical roles of the F1 driver: winning. As human beings we have a very useful ability to purposefully deceive; something which animals can not do in the planned sense(6). This ability is due not only to our inner representations mentioned earlier, but also to our ability to represent others’ inner representations and intentions. We instinctually represent others’ beliefs, goals and desires within our mind, and then anticipate their probable actions. This can be a tricky concept to grasp, but imagine a F1 driver attempting to overtake a driver in front of them. They may overtake on either the inside or outside line (a common tactical decision). The other driver defending the line can represent the overtaking driver’s desire in his mind (overtake) and predict likely actions (overtake on the outside on the oncoming turn). This level of intentionality by way of internal representations is particularly useful for predicting our competitors’ behaviour. Additionally, we can even nest inner representations within inner representations. Yes, that sounds a bit crazy, but let me explain.

If the overtaking driver’s representation can include the assumed inner world of the defending driver, which itself includes a model of the overtaking driver’s own inner world, the overtaking driver can begin to deceive the defending driver. Put simply (try not to roll your eyes), if the overtaking driver has an idea of what the defending driver thinks he is doing, he can use that knowledge to his advantage. The overtaking driver could feign an overtake on the outside (what he believes the defending driver expects of him) and at the last second, overtake on the inside. Here we have the building blocks for deception. Figure 1 illustrates this concept of the nested inner worlds.

F1 Human Factors

Figure 1: Illustration of inner representations and nested representations (critical F1 human factors)

As can be seen in Figure 1, the overtaking driver not only has a representation of the defending driver’s inner world, but also a representation of what the defending driver believes is in the overtaking driver’s inner world (and thus intentions). Deception is just one example of how inner representations aid (and sometimes inhibit) the driver on the circuit. Inner representations and the other cognitive building blocks mentioned in the previous sections also directly impact other driver tasks. Being able to handle nested representations within our mind for example, allows for very intricate deceptions, but also allows complex anticipations, plans and coordination.

Good drivers anticipate

The benefits of our evolved cognition and ability to represent nested inner worlds provide the modern driver the ability to deceive, plan, coordinate, and mentally simulate on the circuit. There is however another aspect to deception which involves our inner representations and higher order intentionality. Anticipating events on the circuit allows the driver to take pre-emptive measures. If we have nested inner representations of an adversary, we can anticipate their actions relative to their perceived view of our intentions.

Being able to anticipate events which may occur in the future provides us with a powerful evolutionary advantage. Anticipation is thought to occur by the individual driver experiencing and recognising a situation based on a certain constellation of cues. This recognition and subsequent decision to act occurs very quickly, such as when a driver senses the opportunity to pass another driver or perceive hazards on the circuit, and is often referred to as recognition primed decision (RPD) making(7). According to the RPD model, in cases of uncertainty the decision maker may sequentially test an alternative option, reject it, and then test another option at a phenomenally fast rate. For example, the driver who is engaged in planning a particular overtaking manoeuvre may mentally simulate a particular course of action in their mind. This projection may afford him the ability to anticipate how the course of action may play out on the circuit. If his projection implies a poor fit, the driver can project another promising course of action. It is proposed that the interplay between a driver’s multi-level anticipations, inner representations, and emulator circuits within their cerebral cortex, provide the ability not only to mentally simulate a particular course of action, but also to judge and verify that the decision is on track. As Smith and Kosslyn (2007) state, “the mechanisms that allow us to produce actions also allow us to anticipate the likely consequences…” (p. 456).

Research(8) has shown that activity patterns in the cortex during mental simulation of physical activity are very similar during the actual activity. This demonstrates the neurological activity associated with mental simulation. Additionally, we have a bunch of evidence(9) highlighting the link between mental simulation and subsequent performance in a range of activities. A driver dedicating time to visualising their race on each circuit, before the race, may prove useful based on these findings (and indeed this has long been a common practice). Having such an evolutionary benefit of emulating within the mind affords the driver a safe and quick simulation capability to test out circuit options. This benefit is afforded not only to pre-race mental simulations and planning, but also more immediate and rapid action taking. During these activities the driver needs to consider the intentions of other drivers. Here, those useful nested inner worlds play a critical role in the mental simulation process.

Coordination is also essential when working within a team to achieve a common goal, and requires synchronised inner worlds between the driver, team principal, technical director, team strategist and pit crew, sometimes referred to as mental or situation models. Anticipating the strategy of adversaries is not just the realm of the driver. In fact, one can present a similar picture for team strategists or team principal, as presented in Figure 1 earlier. The team strategist is also required to not only anticipate his counterparts but also to foresee what his counterparts are predicting he himself will do. Certainly in developing a race strategy as described earlier, the entire team need to rate and assess potential courses of action regarding their possible outcomes and chances for success. With respect to this assessment, coordination primarily occurs by ensuring a common and accurate understanding and use of inner representations between all team members. This in turn allows the race to be concurrently tracked and anticipated by all team members involved, given the common understanding. Additionally, the common understanding and synchronised inner worlds allow a more fluid trade of concepts and ideas across the team. Better efficiency equals a better chance of winning.

So what’s the takeaway message? Performance in F1 is much more than the sum of its parts (the driver, the trainer, the pit crew, management, the car and the associated technology) – it’s a distributed and pervasive phenomenon that in my view has escaped a lot of the work that goes into the current expensive performance multiplier programs. Have a think about all this when watching the first race of this season, but probably don’t mention “inner worlds” or “emulator circuits” to your friends.

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