This discussion is about teaching a teen to drive. It begins with a wonderful video a student brought to class: It is a YouTube and is titled The Backwards Brain Bicycle.
This video is about riding a crazy bicycle, and the man who made the video does not connect it to neural development, but neural development is the key to understanding this video and to understanding what has to happen before your teen is a safe driver.
Procedural memory is a part of the long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things, also known as motor skills. As the name implies, procedural memory stores information on how to perform certain procedures, such as walking, talking, ice skating, skiing, swimming, riding a bike, and driving a car.
Procedural memory is a part of the long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things, also known as motor skills. As the name implies, procedural memory stores information on how to perform certain procedures, such as walking talking, and riding a bike. Delving into something in your procedural memory does not involve conscious thought.
Procedural memory is a subset of implicit memory, sometimes referred to as unconscious memory or automatic memory. Implicit memory uses past experiences to remember things without thinking about them. It differs from declarative memory or explicit memory, which consists of facts and events that can be explicitly stored and consciously recalled or “declared”.
Examples of procedural memory: Musicians and professional athletes are said to excel, in part, because of their superior ability to form procedural memories. Procedural memory is also important in language development, as it allows a person to talk without having to give much thought to proper grammar and syntax.
The point? Once something is learned really well, it no longer is completely under conscious control. Many of the “little programs” to ride a bike (or, to drive a car) are automated and placed in a different part of the brain (probably in the “motor strip” of the brain) where they are accessed without our knowledge.
In the bicycle video, the task demanded of the rider is something that is stored in procedural memory, so the bike rider begins effortlessly to ride as he always has, and falls off, over and over, for the “program” for riding the bike no longer “works.” When he finally is able to ride the crazy bike, it takes him some time to switch back when he tries to ride a normal bike again. This illustrates that riding a bike, and driving a car, are very complex “programs” that need to be automated in the brain to free up some attention for things like other cars, or squirrels in front of the car, or red lights. Your teen is not a safe or competent driver until he or she has fully automated those skills. So, no radio, no phone, no other teens in the car with you and your teen, no texting, and so on, and LOTS and LOTS of practice before getting that driver’s license.
Teaching your teen to drive: Learning to drive is an example of developing procedural memory. You have to give your teen enough experience that driving ability becomes automated in the brain. Until that happens, your teen is not a safe driver. This is one of the most serious responsibilities you have to your adolescent. A few driving lessons at school or at a driving school will not suffice to make a safe driver in urban traffic. In California I exited a freeway at a point where there were eleven lanes of traffic in a single direction! How can one help their teen become capable of handling this challenge skillfully?
Teaching my own teens to drive: Here was what I did to teach my kids to drive in California. From the day the our kids got their learner’s permit, they drove 30 to 45 minutes every single morning under my supervision, before school, every single day, for a whole year. By the end of the year my son had driven us from San Francisco to the Sierras and in snow on a ski trip. Our daughter drove us from San Francisco to Los Angeles. They both had driven in San Francisco with rain, steep hills, and cable cars in the way. They have driven across the Golden Gate Bridge, and inside multilevel parking garages (those were the worst!).
We began in empty shopping center parking lots, where there is lots of room and space to learn to steer and run the controls of the car. Then we began to go around the shopping mall, learning to stop and look both ways and use turn signals. Then, to very quiet, flat streets. Then to streets with hills. Then to a highway that had two lanes. And, then to neighborhood streets. And, then, to freeways. Finally, defensive driving on freeways. All this took one year, 365 trips before school in the morning.
My parents: what they did to teach me to drive in the late 1950s? They let me drive in forward and in reverse down our long driveway. That was all! It was many years before I became comfortable with driving and, I am sure, before I became a safe and confident driver.
This is an example of a parental responsibility to your own teen. Do not wait to punish your teen when he or she has an accident. Instead, recognize your own responsibility and help ensure your teen becomes a safe and confident driver.
This responsibility falls to one or the other parent, or someone in the extended family who is calm, non-judgmental, and has a good relationship with your teen.
Guiding questions for this discussion:
- What is procedural memory and how is it related to learning to drive?
- How does automating a function like driving a car enable a person to be a better driver? Please explain how the brain helps you drive. Hint: Discuss attention and the limits to attention!!!
- Why does Dr. Barr call learning to drive a parental responsibility and not a teen responsibility?
- If you still are busy grounding and taking away your teen’s phone, will you be able to be a nonjudgmental and non-angry teacher for your teen? What is your plan?