How to measure a fun-to-drive car? A physiological insight
Mates, I know that you know it. The difference between boring and non-boring cars. The difference between Mazda Mx-5 and, for example, Tata Nano. You can name and explain all the little tricky bits which make the car fun to drive. Which make you feel thrilled when driving.
You know that the Mx-5 is light and mid-engined. That its handling is super-sharp and tyres are super-grippy. You know that the exhaust rumbling and driver’s position are unalienable elements of its Jinba Ittai. The same as aerodynamic downforce and eagerness for controlled oversteer. Mx-5 does not simply make you move, it makes you smile on the move. It brings fun and thrill.
This is how, for instance, Blee Carswell, the leader of Blee Wheelin’ tribe, describes his Mx-5 experience:
“It’s obvious that as dream cars go, the Mx-5 is quite a slow one, but I don’t think this is a problem. The highest speed limit in my country is 70mph, so what use do I have for 5 million horsepower? … I think Mazda have nailed the interior of Mx-5. You sit low and feel as though you’re in a proper little sports car. The stubby gear stick is positioned perfectly and ensures that changing gear is something to relish. An easy to operate manual roof, adds to the special car feeling … Simply put, the Mx-5 is a car that I could enjoy regardless of the journey. It’s small and easy enough to nip to the shops or hairdressers in, yet when the mood takes me, it could be the perfect country road companion. I’ll take one in red, with the soft top and fitted with the 2L engine, please.”
But let me return to the basics. What is fun? What is a thrill? What is the real magic behind the Mx-5 driving characteristics? How to measure this magic? How to understand it?
No, I’m not talking about the engineering solutions here. I’m talking about you. The way you sense happiness. The way your body operates.
Every body consists of water-based liquids. Some petrolhead species can boast with drops of engine oil in blood, but that is rare and metaphoric. When driving a car, your water-based body gets influenced by physical forces (or pseudo-forces) and conducts a variety of chemical chain-reactions. These forces and reactions make your neurons go a bit excited. And that is how you sense the driving experience.
You might have already guessed that this article will be about physiology. I will look at what happens to your body when you drive a car. Because your body is the only “trustworthy” measuring device to understand the car fun and thrill. Until the blackout, obviously.
So, put on your white robes and rubber shoes and welcome to the “Academic Driving” lab.
It is normal and veeeeeery recommended for a human being to have a vestibular system. The latter is located in the inner ear and consists of semicircular canals, which are stretched across three mutually perpendicular planes. The system also includes two “sacs” – oval saccule and round utricle – with hair sensory cells growing on their inner surface. But the major thing in all that stuff is a gelatinous mass inside the “sacs”, which contains hundreds of calcium carbonate crystals, called otolyths.
When your body accelerates, decelerates, shakes, swings or anyhow changes its tilt in relation to the ground, otolyths make a pressure on the hair cells. Gravity matters, mates, even on such a minuscule level. The “oppressed” hair cells send signals about their “problem” to the brain and the latter “concludes” that you have moved in one of three dimensions (or in all three). That is where the chain of physiological processes starts. Some of them are pleasant, some are not.
If the otolyths hit the hair cells too hard or too often, the irritation of the vestibular system grows too strong, and the brain “decides” to take advanced measures. For instance, to intensify or slow down the heartbeat and breathing, increase sweating, or even “launch” some vomiting. The seasickness comes exactly from here. On the contrary, astronauts in space often feel dizzy as the brain receives no signals from the hair cells in zero gravity.
Speaking in the terrestrial language of cars, the nimbleness, lightness, and handling of the Mx-5 allow for smooth and drastic changes of your body position. The Mx-5, unlike any wobbly and lazy hatch, pushes you through corners without much breaking and bodyroll. The moose test is not a big deal for the Mx-5. Therefore, under the influence of gravity and centrifugal forces, your otolyths start interacting with hairy cells, and your brain “responds” with changes in heartbeat, breathing, and sweating. This makes your entire body function differently, become more “positively stressed”. Otolyths bring the fun! Biophysicists, rejoice!
However, otolyths are not the only fun-bringers. And here biochemists should also feel happy.
Fast driving through the corners makes the brain stimulate your endocrine system, which is responsible for secreting hormones. In other words, the more of your senses get “engaged” while you drive a car (vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch), the higher becomes the level of hormones in your body. These hormones are the major chemical “tools” the brain uses to “recalibrate” your body. Let me take serotonin, for example. It is an interesting beast. On a daily basis, it helps to fight depression and keep your good mood up. For this reason, it is being regularly emitted into your blood, every second. But driving a fun car changes the chemistry. Serotonin gets “overproduced” and you get hyped. Which is good news for enthusiast drivers.
Another bit of good news is that serotonin, apart from keeping you in a good mood, boosts motor activity. High levels of this hormone make you want to jump, dance, run, sing and do some other stupid stuff. Behind the Mx-5 wheel, however, you will feel yourself a Driving God. Your coordination and concentration will significantly improve. Moreover, if you drive the Mx-5 on a sunny day with the roof off, the serotonin will further multiply its fun-effect.
In its stead, a track day under the rain will also have its charm. Serotonin is known to be a pain regulator. High levels of this hormone increase the threshold of pain sensitivity and prevent the “destructive” irritants from reaching the brain centres. Even strong pain can be tolerated on a positive tune-up background. This means that you can have a different experience when driving your Mx-5 on a rainy day. Cold drops punching your face and pouring behind your collar will not feel that dramatic. Because they will also be fun!
Last but not least, the serotonin provides motility of the digestive tract. Your food absorbs better and proceeds faster to the “exit”. Therefore, after a great track day, you can eat a horse. Or dozens of chocolate bars, which also stimulate serotonin production. The “Snickers” advertisements do not look that stupid in this light, don’t they?
Actually, going deeper into the digestive topic, the serotonin is predominantly secreted from the enterochromaffin cells. The latter reside alongside the epithelium lining the lumen of the digestive tract. In other words, all around the way to the “exit”. So, speaking metaphorically and broadly, if you keep your bottom happy, it will make you happy too!
Another hormone which is worth highlighting in respect to the fun cars is dopamine. This one is about pleasure, euphoria, and “rewards” from certain activities. As just you think that some fast driving and sharp cornering in a roofless Mx-5 is a great idea, the dopamine gets a boost. Your brain secretes the hormone itself. And the more you think of fast driving, the more of the hormone gets into the blood. Until you start wanting to jump into the Mx-5 right away!
However, apart from pleasure and euphoria, the dopamine has some interesting “side-effects”. Your heart starts beating “faster” and “louder”, what makes it pump more blood through your body and increase the arterial pressure. And yes, you want to pee.
So, the next time you will need to abandon the track and swerve into the pits to search for a lavatory, blame dopamine.
Finally, there is no fun car without some scary feelings, right? Citing Mario Andretti, an Italian-American racing driver, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough”. And feeling the fear is where the adrenaline falls into place. This hormone reveals itself when you suddenly understand that your speed is, no jokes, brutal and dangerous. Or that the oversteer may actually throw you into the wall. But this understanding usually disappears in a moment. Afterwards, you bring the control back and return to the Driving God mode. Or stop to have a pee.
The same as the dopamine, the adrenaline brings more blood to your muscles and makes the heart output grow. But its impact on the blood circulation system is “stronger” and more "targeted". On over-boosts, you may even feel some heart arrhythmia. Also, when getting an adrenaline hype and flooring the Mx-5 ruthlessly, you are more “vulnerable” to the scary thoughts. Out of the blue.
Eventually, when you are done with a track day, all these scary thoughts will make you feel good. Because you had much fun experiencing and overcoming them.
The adrenaline is one of the most well-explored hormones the physicians know. Your body actively produces it when you start exercising. You might have noticed that every new workout makes you “angrier” and “stronger”. In its turn, racing is very good exercise.
Soooo, mates, do some sport in your life. Allow for some biophysics and biochemistry to take place in your bodies. Fire the Mx-5 up and “measure” all those nerdy things I described above on yourselves. Enjoy the fun of Jinba Ittai, which is a sort of therapy.
And good therapy is always a good thing, isn’t it?
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P.S. I’m very grateful to my brother’s wife Nadiia Kushnir, who is a certified otolaryngologist, for helping me with this article. She provided me with a plethora of specific information and guided my further individual research.