A neuroscientific evaluation of driver rehabilitation: Functional neuroimaging demonstrates the effectiveness of empathy induction in altering brain responses during social information processing
An alarming number of traffic-related deaths occur each year on European roads alone. Figures reveal that the vast majority of road-traffic accidents are caused by drivers themselves, and so further improvements in road safety require developments in driver training and rehabilitation. This study evaluated a novel approach to driver rehabilitation–specifically, empathy induction as a means of changing attitudes towards risky driving. To assess the effectiveness of this method, the present study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare brain function before and after a short program of empathy induction in 27 drivers whose licenses had been revoked after serious traffic offences (rehabilitated drivers [RDs]). In an extension of our previous research, we first assessed whether neural responses to empathy-eliciting social stimuli changed in these RDs. In order to isolate the neurophysiological effects of empathy induction from any other potential influences, we compared these RDs to a sample of 27 age-, handedness- and driving experience-matched control drivers (CDs) who had no exposure to the program. We then performed dual-fMRI “hyperscanning” to evaluate whether empathy induction changed brain responses during real-world social interactions among drivers; namely, during co-operative and/or competitive exchanges. Our data reveal that RDs exhibited weaker brain responses to socio-emotional stimuli compared with CDs prior to the program, but this difference was reversed after empathy induction. Moreover, we observed differences between pre- and post-program assessments in patterns of brain responses in RDs elicited during competitive social exchanges, which we interpret to reflect a change in their proclivity to react to the perceived wrong-doing of other road users. Together, these findings suggest that empathy induction is an effective form of driver rehabilitation, and the utility of neuroscientific techniques for evaluating and improving rehabilitation programs.