The Brain's Secret Autopilot Mode

Your brain may be going on autopilot when you drive...

Your brain may be going on autopilot when you drive...

Have you ever felt like you can carry out tasks effortlessly without giving them much thought or consideration? Well then, your brain is probably functioning on autopilot.

For example, many people claim that when they are driving a familiar route home, that they “don’t know how they got home”, or even instrument players, ‘zone out’ while still playing a musical piece, and similarly they don’t know how “they got to the end of the piece”. Although it seems quite scary that there are thousands of people that are driving on the road that are lost in thought and daydreaming, fear not, as you are in the incredibly capable hands of your brain.

Responses become faster when the DMN of your brain is switched on. 

Responses become faster when the DMN of your brain is switched on. 

More specifically, researchers have pinpointed the part of your brain that handles your brain’s autopilot mode, this was done by sitting 28 volunteers in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, and teaching them a simple card game. When the volunteers were learning the rules of the game, the region associated with conscious learning fired up. But what’s interesting is that after a while of learning and playing the simple game, the task of playing the game was delegated to a new region of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN).

But upon switching to the DMN, researcher observed that the volunteer’s responses became faster, and more accurate, i.e. the brain works more efficiently and accurately when in the DMN, and therefore is the reason why the brain does not hesitate to switch to the ‘autopilot’ mode whenever it can. So, contrary to what many people may think, by entering this trance like state, you are less likely to make a mistake, and you will do the action much more efficiently. (so daydreaming will help you drive safer).

But why aren’t we always in this trance if it is so efficient and accurate? Well, firstly its only efficient at carrying out one task. Only one. And it certainly cannot learn new tasks and perform them well. For these reasons, only a ‘select few’ tasks will end up here, and they will be the ones that you do most regularly, such as drive, walk to school or even copy notes from a slideshow in a lesson/lecture. Also, it is thought that we will only enter autopilot mode when there are no external influences on the brain, i.e. you are only concentrating on that one activity.

Another hypothesised idea, with some results, is the idea that you can ‘train your brain and DMN’. A way to do this would be by using a technique called “neurofeedback” training, which involves the person trying to control their brain activity by being shown real time brain scans of their brain. This could mean that people in the future go to brain ‘gyms’ to ‘workout’ different areas of their brain.

Obviously, there are some downsides to being semi-unconscious while you perform key activities such as walking or even hurtling down a motorway at 70mph. For example, while walking, although we avoid obstacles, we fail to remember what they were/looked like, and it has been proven that people will literally walk past notes of money on the floor while in a trance. Also, autopilot is good for ‘normal’ situations, imagine if you are on the motorway, driving your usual journey home, lost in deep thought, but then the car in front of you quickly brakes to avoid a wild animal on the road.

How fast does your brain react?

How fast does your brain react?

Now what? Well, firstly you DMN will start panicking as this is not ‘what’s meant to happen’, its meant to be a normal drive home, the one you’ve done for the past 5 years. So, what it then will do is it will then hand the task over to the conscious part of the brain, and you will wake up. But what’s crucial is the fact that even though that may add only 0.3 seconds to your reaction, this will increase your braking distance tremendously, which puts not only your life at risk, but the people around you.

Another, more amusing thing that can happen when you are in a trance, is that your brain will get confused as to if you really are in the situation you think you are in. Let me explain. Say that you are finishing up a meeting with your boss, and she then bids you farewell, by addressing you by your first name and saying, “enjoy your day”. The problem is that your mother also says exactly the same thing when you leave the house every day so, you instantly reply with “thanks mum, I love you”, you are then left red faced and embarrassed, and your boss is extremely confused. See what I mean, and even though this may seem bad, there are thousands of people that have said way worse things to people that are even more important than their bosses.

So is it even worth having this ‘autopilot’ mode, even though you could save yourself from a lot of embarrassment, or worse?