Dr. Otto Lappi is a Research Fellow of the Academy of Finland and an Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Helsinki.

He is interested in all aspects of the cognitive basis of everyday and expert performance (but driving performance most especially).

Otto leads a lab with a 50-year track record of experimental work in naturalistic & laboratory conditions as well as driving simulators. He more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific publications on topics related to driver behavior and expert performance, in journals such as Psychological Bulletin, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Frontiers in Psychology, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Journal of Expertise, Human Factors, Journal of Vision, PLoS ONE etc.

Alan Dove is a Race Driver Performance analyst from the UK with experience of coaching drivers across multiple racing disciplines. Having raced karts since the age of 8, he has had a lifetime of observing the development of the best drivers in the world.

Alan has worked at the GTS-RS Racing Simulation and runs the Karting1 YouTube channel.

So, how did this unlikeliest of projects come to be?

Photo: Elis a

Otto’s side of the story

Already during my undergraduate university studies I was thinking about the cognitive and neural basis of race driving. I always had race driving in my mind as a concrete domain of application. So, whenever we were presented theories of vision, memory, reflex behaviors, expert performance – all the really interesting topics in the psychology and neuroscience! – I would try to relate to the question “how does this apply to the problem of going through a bend (fast)?” This may have been an unusual question, I realize now…

Then, as I was struggling to figure out what to do my PhD on, the opportunity presented itself to use the eye-tracking equipment in the new experimental vehicles of the Traffic Research Unit research group. “I know what we’ll do”, I said, “I’m going to join the group and we’re going to investigate visual strategies in curve driving! Surely, I will be able to develop a PhD in Cognitive Science out of that?”. So we did, and I did. Then, five years into my post-doc, I was kind of at a crossroads as to where to take my research. I had established myself at the faculty, and was now the head of the research group. But what do I want to do next? Where do I take my research? Almost everybody in the academic world expects research into driving to be about traffic safety – but I’m more interested in the fundamental mechanisms of the human mind… and real driving. Was there any way to add speed to the picture?

Then, Alan, with whom I had been in correspondence on and off, threw me an e-mail: “Though there seems to be swathes of books titled ‘The Neuroscience of….’ in the stores nowadays, nonetheless, I think there might be some merit in a book about the brain and the science of race driving. I would like to propose the idea of writing a book investigating driving from a neuroscience point of view. I don’t know many other people who are interested in this kind of thing, someone has to do it, right?” So we did.

Alan’s side of the story

It first started with reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, oddly enough. I’ve been a musician all my life and was somewhat bewildered by how music works. Music theory to me is generally somewhat lacking in explaining where music comes from. Why do we perceive certain notes and chords as pleasant and others not? It’s just taken as fact that a perfect 5th sounds nice… and often we don’t think more of it than that.

But upon reading Sacks’ book it became apparent that music was far grounded in a neurological perspective than I previously appreciated. After driving into the rabbit hole of neuroscience of music (which is now a recognised research area), it occurred to me how much of this translated to my other main passion – motorsport.

I have been racing all my life, and taken a keen interest in the intricacies of expert performance, especially inspired by Keith Code’s work in motorbike racing his Twist of the Wrist series. Along with starting a motorsport media platform, I ventured into the coaching realm around 2005 when my brother started his kart driver coaching business. Supporting my brother’s work I’d watch karters ply their trade and improve. Karting is particularly good because a driver can smash laps in all day without too much worry. (Car test days can be a rather more long drawn out affair in comparison).

At the time eye trackers started to become available and we were learning about the various eye strategies race drivers use. As I developed my own ideas and worked at GTS RS Driver Performance in London with car racers, I started to become frustrated with the lack of real detailed study into the area of ‘the science of driving’. Most of the industry would talk about improving feel but couldn’t satisfactorily explain what ‘feel’ actually was. Where did it originate?

There was also a fair amount of conjecture about eye strategies and training the mind in the race driving literature, but nothing that really satisfied my desire for a deeper understanding of what was really going on. Sure, I’d teach people about “looking ahead”, but it wasn’t based on anything particularly scientific. It was just replication of what I’d seen others do.

This (and my inherent desire to be contrarian I guess) led me to conclude that we just didn’t have a high enough level of discussion to really appreciate what was going on with drivers. This is how I first found out about Otto. Searching for various scientific studies on eye strategies that touch upon what drivers do from a neuroscience perspective, I came across his work. Otto is a leading expert in this field and it was evident from his writing and work he “gets” what the tasks fundamentals are about.

An email, several discussions, and a meeting in London, and it was clear we had a deep and shared passion for this subject. This led us to conclude we really need to get a book written, and help move the topic forward. Hopefully inspiring others to get involved and thinking along new lines.

What race drivers do when they throw a 1 ton lump of metal into a corner at very high speed is a remarkable example of what the human brain is capable of. The topic deserves full analysis and understanding. This book is a beginning.

Photos of OL by Markku Verkasalo and Karl Vilhjálmsson