Human Autopilot

Have you ever pulled into work in the morning and you don’t remember driving there? You were still a little sleepy and you just auto piloted the whole way. How does that happen?

I’ve even done it in a virtual setting. I used to play a car racing game called Project Gotham Racing. It had a great feature on the original Xbox where you could import your own music and the game would mix the songs and add fake radio DJ’s to play them in the car. Some of the races were really difficult and one minor slip up would require starting all over. Sometimes I would space out on my tunes (and another thing that people have been known to space out on ;)) and run the whole race without paying attention and manage to beat a track I had been continually messing up on. I always found that so strange.

I have driven to work and not recalled the trip.
I used to play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture every day because it was energetic and took just the right time for the trip. But one day I thought the tape was busted because it stopped, then I realized I had completed the trip and missed even the cannonade ending.

I hear (no cite, sorry) that it’s your brain’s own method of keeping itself from getting overworked by conscious thought. So it’ll put a couple of things on the ol’ backburner to keep things running smoothly.

Why it things it’s a good idea to do this while driving I have no idea. A lapse of focus and attention on the road can be deadly. Stupid brain, get with the program!

This is exactly why I don’t get too mad when I see someone commit a bonehead mistake on the road. There have been times I’ve made similar mistakes.

Indeed. Certain lapses of judgment in an otherwise routine procedure can probably be chalked up to Human Autopilot. They’ve been doing Action X for so long and on so many occasions, their brain just probably keeps it on the backburner while a more pressing issue stays on the front.

I’ve done the same plenty of times driving to work and even walking to class. I don’t mind, I like it. If there is an obstacle out of the ordinary, my conscious mind kicks in again, disrupting me from thoughts of my girlfriend or a chess game with a friend.

Do we know whether this is really 'auto-pilot", ie no conscious thought about the task?

Or is it more more a case of something like amnesia, where you were paying attention at the time, but not recording the fact you were paying attention. So that after the fact, it appears to you that you weren’t paying attention.

I submit that from the POV of the individual trying to introspect, these two situations would look the same. Only some sort of mind/brain research folks could answer the question definitively, and perhaps not even them given our current witch-doctor-plus-a-smidgen state of that art.

I have been driving and can’t remember if I’m on my way to work or on my way home. Because my work day is just that scintillating.

I have kind of “woke up” in my car, usually stopped at a light, with no memory of having stopped. I take this as a good thing, because I DID stop, rather than plow through.

These are distinctly different experiences from some long highway drives I’ve done, when I start to feel sleepy and have to do all kinds of conscious things to keep from dropping off.

Isn’t it a trance state? I have to go to work, otherwise I’d Google.

I used to enjoy getting into trance states while swimming laps or going on long walks. (Hey, I was exercising and didn’t even notice it!)

I use the same freeway to get to a couple of different places, including, as of a few weeks ago, my lab. I’ve already spaced out and missed my exit twice because my brain thought I was going somewhere else. Both times on days when I was late, of course.

When I started my first adult job I lived with my folks for 4-5 months. It was an hour commute on a 4 lane highway, and there were a number of times I would leave work and the next thing I knew I was turning off the ignition in my car at my parents.

When I was taking Qi Gong classes one of the exercises that the teacher focused on was about where we center our consciousness in our brain, whether it be forebrain where we separate ideas, like, “Move my arm.”, and rear brain where we maintained a full body awareness and moved everything together. Now I am not so sure how accurate his neurological theory was, but the exercises really worked. You wouldn’t necessarily blank on memory though. I don’t forget what happens when I am in that state.

Also, in a massage class I took the instructor said to specifically think about other things while you were working so that you wouldn’t start mashing down with the forebrain, you’d automatically be more sensitive to the person you are working on. That actually works too.

This reminds me of something I had already forgotten about. This morning going to work someone honked behind me at a red light that just turned green. I saw it turn green and took off at a normal rate so that shouldn’t have been the problem. He was furious at me and pulled beside me to give me the finger. I gave him my best confused look. He then pulled ahead of me and gave me the finger again to be sure I would understand what I had did to upset him. I dunno, maybe I had cut him off in a trance or something.

The first thing I do when I drag myself out of bed on weekday mornings is take a shower. Often I’ll “wake up” halfway through the shower not knowing whether or not I’ve washed my hair, the first thing in my bath routine. I can usually figure it out based on the feel of my hair or spotting suds on the floor of the tub, and practically always it turns out I have, indeed, washed my hair. I’ll have no memory of doing so whatsoever, though. This happens once a week, if not more frequently.

I’m a very heavy sleeper. My wife has apparently had entire conversations with me while I’m asleep and I’ll have no recollection of them. Even slept through a tornado once that touched down a mile from my apartment. With the window open. And the head of my bed against the window.

I’ve heard it called Broca’s Brain, but that may be a misnomer. Basically it’s our ability to filter out sameness.

I’ve done that. More common for me is not remembering whether I’ve taken my medication, mere seconds after taking my medication. Or did I?

It makes me realize just how routine my mornings are. And it’s not like my mind is turned off. I’m usually thinking a million thoughts from the second I wake up. It’s just that those thoughts bear little resemblance to what my body is doing.

It happens to everyone. A simplified explanation is that different parts of the brain handle memories of the drive versus how to make the trip. Your conscious memory of the drive has more to do with areas of the cerebral cortex, while knowing how to drive has more to do with the thalamus and cerebellum. The hippocampus is involved in both cases. You might say it’s what decides whether you remember the details of a particular drive to work.

My sense is that stuff just doesn’t get moved into long term memory. Watching the evolution of my mom’s Alzheimer’s progress, it was very obvious in the begining that her short term memory was fine, and her long term as well, but stuff just wasn’t moving from short term to long term.

I used to dip into Human Autopilot constantly when I was playing Super Tennis on the SNES. For some reason, that game would totally shut down my brain, and I’d “wake up” an hour later and realize I’d won the French Open without dropping a single point…