Feel the Road

What happens inside your body when you drive a truly great car?

A great car offers luxurious comfort and heart-racing exhilaration at the same time. When you twist the key in the ignition, ease your foot onto the gas pedal and experience your car whisking your forward. A chemical cocktail of hormones roars away inside your body.

Alexander Blaszczynski, research fellow at the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology, says a car’s design starts that cocktail before a driver even gets into the car.

“Car manufacturers design cars to appeal to certain segments of the population, including car enthusiasts,” Blaszczynski tells Inverse. “Thus, safety, recreational, and image is promoted through sexual appeal, glamorizing images and display of wealth, and speed for enthusiasts.”

Two key chemicals are at play that prepare the body for driving: Adrenaline is produced by the adrenal medulla gland that kicks muscles and blood vessels into gear, and noradrenaline raises the brain’s alertness to improve reaction times. The latter chemical acts as a neurotransmitter, one of the tiny molecules used by the nervous system to send chemical messages around the body. Research indicates a link between neurotransmitter activity and reward-seeking behaviors.

A 1969 paper published in the British Medical Journal studied the effects of driving on normal and abnormal hearts. The test studied 17 racing drivers, 32 city drivers with normal hearts, and 29 city drivers with abnormal hearts. All the racing drivers showed much higher levels of noradrenaline after the test, while just one of the drivers registered an increase in adrenaline. The city drivers experienced negligible changes consistent with the lower-intensity ride.

Adrenaline molecule ball from xtal

Over the years, findings contradicted these city driving results. A series of three studies collected in a 2017 review discovered consistent increases of these chemicals in participants before and after driving. Yes, cars are increasingly designed to make the body appreciate the thrill of the drive, with highly advanced engineering creating a more responsive experience compared to the glacial acceleration times of older cars.

“Neurotransmitter dysregulation might represent a factor that increases the vulnerability to respond to certain sensation-seeking behaviors, such that they continue to seek it out,” Blaszczynski says. “This is consistent with the reward deficiency model.”

In other words, some people crave these chemicals. Reward deficiency syndrome, a term coined by psychologist Kenneth Blum, is a hypothesis that dopamine circuits in the nervous system light up when doing a thrilling activity.

Some people can have as many as 40 percent fewer D2 dopamine receptors, a number dictated by the DRD2 gene. The hypothesis explains that these people are drawn to hyper-thrilling rewards, so more dopamine hits those fewer receptors.

“Alternatively, engaging in reward-seeking behaviors for other reasons or motivations might lead to changes in neurotransmitter activity. That is, the result of repeated arousal and excitement,” Blaszczynski says. “In either case, control over behavior is retained as evidenced by the rapid response by drivers to reduce speed once they see a police radar ahead!

“What needs to be distinguished is the concept of impaired control (so-called addiction to speed) as compared to bad decisions in thrill-seeking behaviors to gratify urges.”

City Driving Is Scientifically Thrilling

It’s not just neurotransmitters where the body feels this heightened state. The 1969 study on drivers found even driving in the city places the body in a heightened state. The racing drivers’ heart rates increased to 180 beats per minute in the build-up to a race and jumped to 200 beats per minute during the main event. The majority of city drivers with both normal and abnormal hearts, which overall had a resting rate of between 55 and 105 beats per minute, also recorded brief moments where their heart rates jumped to 140 beats per minute.

There’s also hormones at play when we get behind the wheel of a luxury, high-performance vehicle. Concordia University scientists asked 39 young men to drive both a flashy supercar and an older-looking family sedan through both a highly visible downtown setting and empty, open highways. The men that drove the supercar had “substantial” jumps in testosterone levels on both tested roads, while the midsize produced almost no changes in internal hormones.

This reaction can increase good feelings toward these cars, as higher testosterone is linked to a preference for luxury. A July 2018 study from Caltech and other researchers studied 243 men aged 18 and 55, half of which received a testosterone gel and the other half a placebo. The men with the gel registered a stronger preference for ads that focused on a product’s luxury and status-enhancing features rather than its high quality or strong power.

When drivers talk about the feel of a car, there’s more to it than meets the eye.