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tinyfaery's avatar

What is going on in my brain when I switch onto "auto-pilot"?

Asked by tinyfaery (44174points) October 12th, 2009

This mostly happens when I am driving, but it happens at other times, as well. For instance, I was driving to work this morning. I remember turning onto a a certain street and then all of a sudden I was 2 blocks from work. I don’t remember anything that occurred between point A and point B. I must have stopped at a few lights, I even turned a very busy street corner at one point.

How and why does this happen? It’s kinda scary. I feel like I could have been in some major accident, but no. It’s like my body knew what to do without my conscious mind driving it.

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25 Answers

grumpyfish's avatar

Not quite… your brain has sort of an “interrupt” system—it’ll draw your attention back to what’s going on before you have an accident.

Sometimes this is called “subconcious driving” or “hypnotic driving”—because much of driving can be “backgrounded” in your brain as reflex action, you can actually sort of “zone out”. I’m not sure the precise process, but I find it very relaxing =)

deni's avatar

I alllways notice this when I’m driving! I’ll leave home, remember turning off my street, then suddenly I’m there. I don’t remember steering or seeing anything along the way. It’s so weird.

@grumpyfish it is sort of relaxing…i agree!

poofandmook's avatar

I always wondered this too. It is pretty scary to me.

Facade's avatar

This happens to me too. I’ll be chatting through IM and there will be two or three messages that I’ve typed, but I don’t recall doing it at all. Very weird.

gussnarp's avatar

I sometimes can’t exactly remember some segment of a drive, but the only time I really don’t remember driving at all I’m pretty sure I was asleep. Still amazed I survived that drive (going 75 over a multi lane bridge with heavy traffic). Maybe I really was just on autopilot.

dpworkin's avatar

It’s an attentional phenomenon, and is undergoing a great deal of study right now because of the correlations being found between automobile accidents and cell-phone use.

I have forgotten the woman’s name at MIT (I’ll try to find it for you) who has determined that inattention can lead to profound cognitive errors, such as an inability to correctly distinguish shapes and/or colors.

augustlan's avatar

Great question, tiny! I’ve done that exact thing numerous times. Where is nikipedia when you need her?

Harp's avatar

fMRIs have shown that the brain has a default mode that it switches into when doing repetitive or well-rehearsed tasks that don’t require thought. This involves activation of a network of regions in the brain (located in aspects of the posterior cingulate and the precuneus , the posterior lateral cortices , the insular cortices, the cingulate , and aspects of both ventral and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, premotor and supplementary motor cortex) that appears to be specific to “wandering mind” states.

This particular network lights up only during “mindless” tasks and is associated with a subjective experience of daydreaming. If you want the full scoop, here’s the study.

CMaz's avatar

The “auto Pilot” is nothing more then a routine process. Due to its nature, forgotten.

janbb's avatar

@Harp That’s a very interesting and logical explanation. It happens to me a lot when I’m driving too. The scary thing about driving familiar routes is that it is a repetitive or well-rehearsed task but then something new and unexpected (black ice! that truck turning into your lane!) can come up and you have to be able to react quickly. When I’m driving, I try to pull my attention frequently back to the road and notice what’s around me.

The other time it will happen is when I’m doing stuff around the house. Suddenly, I wonder if I took that pill I was supposed to or not, and literally cannot remember. Sometimes I can “look back” in my mind and picture myself having done it; other times I need to feel the water glass to see if it’s wet! I am getting older but I don’t consider myself and old person yet so these lapses are upsetting. (And presumably will continue to be as I get even older and more inattentive.)

augustlan's avatar

Nikipedia, or – you know – Harp. :P

Harp's avatar

For me, it’s in the shower. My body just knows the script and my mind drifts off and does other stuff. I actually make a conscious effort to stay attentive during the shower, but it’s very difficult.

When I worked in pastry, I had a boss who used to get all her new pastry ideas in the morning shower.

janbb's avatar

@Harp On the other hand, if you forget to wash behind your ears, it’s not a great tragedy! :-) I wish I could confine my wandering mind to that

Val123's avatar

It only happened to me once, and it scared the crap out of me!

LanceVance's avatar

This was once on CSI. I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to reference a tv-show, but this exact situation was described as a part of brian functioning in a cetain hyptnotic state.

kellylet's avatar

I just starting reading a book called “Traffic” that talks about our driving self and why so many things happen on the road the way they do. One of the things he alks about is how many complex things we do as we drive, but how we minimize their importance so we don’t feel overloaded.

I don’t know if this exact “auto pilot” act is covered but it’s actually an interesting, entertaining read.

OpryLeigh's avatar

This pretty much only happens to me when I am driving especially if I am on a fairly long journey. If I am driving down the motorway or a long stretch of road I will fall in to this state and then when I snap out of it I will panic that I may have missed a turning I needed or something due to not being able to remember the last 20 mins of my journey.

I hope @grumpyfish is right that your brain is likely to snap out of it before an accident.

Val123's avatar

I wonder if most wrecks happen when people are in that “zone”...

tinyfaery's avatar

I don’t think auto-pilot is the cause of accidents. I have never had an accident in this state. What I am describing is not distraction it’s automatic driving or showering.

dpworkin's avatar

I think @Harp and I were discussing different phenomena – I was talking about active distraction. I think @tinyfaery is right that when in @Harp‘s condition of “autopilot” you are sufficiently aware that you still do things correctly – they just don’t need conscious and constant monitoring. The difference between driving on a straight highway through Kansas, and downhill skiing, say.

Val123's avatar

@pdworkin We don’t have any highways in Kansas. Just wagon trails.

Garebo's avatar

The brain easily and effortlessly can go into auto pilot because you are asleep, someones got to drive.

mattbrowne's avatar

You’re cerebellum is mainly “in charge” and your conscious mind seems to focus on stuff you’re retrieving from your memory (maybe you were brooding or something). Don’t worry, that you don’t remember anything that occurred between point A and point B is perfectly normal. Any healthy brain will do this. And it shouldn’t scare you. Your hypothalamus and other areas are constantly screening all your sensory input. They determine what is new and important. Every split second. If something unusual or even dangerous happens between point A and point B your brain will force you to shift your conscious focus. Away from brooding to what’s going on outside. Some responses will even be automatic. You might actually hit the brake before you realize you want to hit the brake. But of course there’s some delay as your neurons are firing away.

filmfann's avatar

Happens to me as well. Hey, how did I get here? I don’t remember going thru the tunnell… Habit is a bitch.

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