How Our Brains Learn to Steer

Think of the mind as a car. We know quite a lot about the ‘engine’ of the car. It’s roughly what we mean by IQ and it is determined largely by several functions such as our working memory, our processing speed and our retained memory of facts, words and meanings.

However, just like in a car, our engine does not regulate how we steer. How we steer is the ability to ‘look ahead’ down the road, and anticipate the social & emotional signals around us. It is the ability to choose what signals we should pay attention to, and what we can ignore (the mind has to ignore a lot of information around it otherwise it would be overwhelmed. It is the ability to choose how to respond from a whole repertoire of possible behaviours and actions we could take.


Like driving, we have to learn to steer the social- emotional road.

Our parents are our principal driving instructors early on in life. From them, we learn the basics signposts of the social-emotional road. Slowly, we start to understand the highway code of social behaviour.

We have lots of bumps and crashes along the way; we learn fast when we get into scrapes or fights because we have mis-read the signals. We learn there are consequences of how we steer on others- we can’t just drive in our own way and expect others to get off the road. We learn to share the road, to consider other drivers,  take care when conditions are tricky.

Over our childhood, our steering should get better.

Cognitively, what this means is that we become better at reading the right social data around us; anticipating the outcomes of our behaviour; choosing appropriate responses; and regulating our own internal emotions.

Dr Simon Walker, co-author of Steering Parents, has been studying how our minds learn to steer for more than 17 years. Steering Parents is based on a model that he, and his colleague and wife Dr Jo Walker, developed to make it easier for parents to signpost the road of adolescence.

If you are interested in further information about how the mind steers, you can read about Dr Walker’s model of ‘steering cognition’ at

“The eight Steering Parents Family Signposts take what we now understand about the mind, and apply it to what we know needs to happen in a healthy home.”  Dr Jo Walker

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