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When driving a car, common things to consider are whether a vehicle is fun to drive, comfortable, reliable, and safe. However, have you ever considered the impact that driving has on your brain? Does it make you smarter — or dumber?

Driving helps improve creative thinking

Man sticks head out the window of a van, highlighting whether driving a car makes you smarter or dumber
Driver sticks head out of window | Frank McKenna via Unsplash

One form of intelligence is creative thinking — and on this front, driving a car is beneficial. In a previous article, we covered how driving is great for creative thinking to get big ideas. It’s an interesting read, especially if you’d like some creative inspiration.

The reason why driving benefits creative intelligence is the routineness of doing it. Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment and thought of a fantastic idea when doing a routine activity, such as cleaning the house or taking a shower? The same thing applies to driving. 

There’s a scientific reason why driving is beneficial for creative thinking. When tasks require our full attention, the “central executive network” part of the brain is more active. It enables us to focus on mentally demanding activities by filtering out non-essential thoughts from the subconscious mind — also called the “imagination network.”

However, the central executive network is less active when doing a routine activity like driving. This frees up the subconscious mind, resulting in a greater proliferation of creative thoughts. 

Woman maneuvering steering wheel, highlighting whether driving a car makes you smarter or dumber
Woman driving a car | Jenny Ueberberg via Unsplash

In order to achieve the maximum creative potential, though, the key is to go on a less demanding drive — such as a quiet road with little to no traffic. 

Dr. Shelley Carson is a psychology researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In an interview with Aviva, Dr. Carson described the creative process on her 50-mile commute from work to her home in South Boston: “It probably takes me about 20 minutes to get out of the city, and that’s the time I start calming myself. As soon as I get on the open road, I’m relaxed, and that’s when ideas really start to percolate and make their way through the filters.”

Study showed that people who drive and navigate with maps are smarter 

In addition to the creative benefits, there is another way that driving makes you smarter. A study conducted by the University of Carnegie-Mellon showed that people that drive and navigate with maps are more intelligent. The study had two groups of people “drive” a car in a video game. One group practiced maneuvering on 20 different routes, while the other group maneuvered on a single route. 

As expected, the second control group was able to maneuver on the single route much more quickly than the first group. With many routes covered, the first group didn’t have enough time to learn one specific route. Also, the second group was more proficient at drawing a two-dimensional picture of the route.

Drivers that proficiently learn routes have a larger hippocampus part of the brain

However, the surprising aspect of the study is the impact that these driving tests had on the brains of the study participants. After the completion of the driving tests, the study participants underwent brain scans using diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI). A DWI scan measures water molecule activity in the brain. 

For the control group that repeatedly practiced a single route, the brain scan showed changes in the left posterior dentate gyrus. This is part of the hippocampus area of the brain, which controls navigation ability and memory. Also, understanding the hippocampus is crucial to finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s, for it’s one of the first parts of the brain to be afflicted by the disease. 

Along with the changes to the hippocampus, there were other things impacted. The Carnegie-Mellon researchers found that there was “an increase in the synchronization of activity — or functional connectivity — between this region and other cortical areas in the network of brain regions responsible for spatial cognition.” Additionally, there was a strong correlation between this structural change to the brain and how effectively the study participants navigated the route. 

Furthermore, previous studies showed that taxi drivers — with much experience navigating city streets — have a larger hippocampus than the general population. This Carnegie-Mellon study revealed that the larger hippocampus is the result of driving and navigating.

Another study showed that driving for a long time makes you dumber

Man with sunglasses sitting in a car, highlighting how operating a motor vehicle affects intelligence
Man sitting in a vehicle | Jack Delulio via Unsplash

However, don’t get too excited and think that driving your car will turn you into the next Einstein. There’s another study that found that driving for more than two hours per day makes you dumber. 

Have you ever been stuck in traffic for hours and felt mentally drained — like your brain doesn’t function very well? A study at the University of Leicester showed that this isn’t just a mere feeling. It’s backed by research.

As detailed by the Sunday Times, the study conducted intelligence and memory tests on 500,000 people over a five-year period. This included 93,000 participants that drove more than two hours per day. Prior to the start of the study, the IQ scores of frequent drivers were lower than those who drove infrequently or not at all. Also, their IQ score dropped even further in the ensuing years of the study.

The Sunday Times interviewed Kishan Bakrania, a medical epidemiologist at the University of Leicester. She said, “We know that regularly driving for more than two to three hours a day is bad for your heart. This research suggests it is bad for your brain, too, perhaps because your mind is less active in those hours.” She continued: “Cognitive decline is measurable over five years because it can happen fast in middle-aged and older people. This is associated with lifestyle factors such as smoking and bad diet — and now with time spent driving.” 

The study showed that driving for a long time is kind of like watching too much TV. It results in “mental fogginess,” with a sense of lethargy for your brain.

Use a car to boost your intelligence — but drive in moderation

As you can see, it’s a bit of a “mixed bag” when it comes to the question of whether driving makes you smarter or dumber. For one, intelligence comes in different forms, whether it’s creative, emotional, logical, memory, interpersonal, or wisdom. People are strong or weak in various types of intelligence — and driving impacts these types in different ways.

Also, like many things in life, it all comes down to moderation. Doing things in moderation is usually fine. However, doing an activity excessively can have negative implications, such as too much working, eating, watching TV, scrolling social media — and driving.

By driving a car, you can become smarter creatively. You can also positively impact your brain through more proficient navigation and map reading. But, if you drive for a very long time, day after day, you might experience a negative impact on your intelligence.