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The perks of doing things on autopilot

This post is also available in Dutch.

The perks of doing things on autopilot

We do most of our routine on autopilot, without spending a lot of attention to how we’re doing things. See here whether you should trust it…

It’s a given fact that routine means doing automatic and repetitive tasks, like going to your working place. When your working-day journey settles in your routine, it seems like you tend to lose awareness of your surroundings. It comes to a point that you may not even remember most of the things that happened during the route. Some drivers even confess sometimes they’re not completely sure which exact path they took back home. That’s when your brain goes on autopilot mode.

We autopilot everywhere, not just in traffic.

We tend to autopilot in all sorts of daily tasks, like cutting vegetables or brushing our teeth. It’s a mental state that we achieve every time we do a certain activity over and over again. By constantly repeating a task, our brain learns how to do it automatically, without having to spend a lot of effort doing it.

It’s true that once in a while a few things may change in the performance of those tasks, like when you use a different knife or a new tooth brush. Still, you don’t necessarily have to pay full attention to those differences, since they don’t require you to change the action you trained for years. The human brain is simply capable of ignoring these minor differences and lets you stay on autopilot, in what we, neuroscientists, call “cognitive stability”.

Finding our autopilot in the brain

Scientists are pretty sure that memory plays an important role in our autopilot mode. By storing the information we learned by repeating daily tasks, our memories ensure that we execute these tasks with high accuracy and low effort. Despite this certainty, we still don’t know exactly how this happens in the brain. That’s why a recent study tried to look at brain activity in regions belonging to the network we name the default mode network, which you can see in the image bellow.

Default mode network in the brain. You can see colored in blue the regions belonging to the default mode network in a medial view (Image A) and a top view of the brain.
Image courtesy of McCormick et al. (2018).

Although this brain network is mainly known for inducing thoughts that spontaneously pop up in your mind, there is an extensive number of studies showing that this network is engaged when we access information stored in our memories. So these researchers asked whether that was also the case when we rely on our autopiloted actions.

To show that, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging, which allows indirect recording of brain activity while participants perform a certain cognitive task. In this case, the researchers chose a task that enables autopilot behavior: the cognitive flexibility task, which requires participants to play a ‘game’ in which they have to figure out the rule that dictates a correct decision. Throughout the game, the rules for making a correct choice change, and the participants have to switch their choice behavior as well.

The researchers expected that, in the beginning of the task, participants would pay a lot of attention to which exact choice they had to make, disabling their autopilot behavior; but over the course of time, participants would learn and get used to the task, which would set the mood for their autopilot mode to turn on.

This study showed that as the participants memorized and got more used to the cognitive flexibility task, brain activity in the default mode regions increased, and that communication between these regions became more pronounced. This shows that the default mode network plays a role in how our autopilot mode performs. With its help, we may, for example, understand why some people make better decisions while on autopilot mode than others.

Keep calm and trust your autopilot… but not always

It’s safe to say that you can trust your autopilot behavior. But like all rules, there are exceptions. Sometimes it may be a good idea to keep an eye on what your autopilot is doing. For example, if you’re biking in bad weather, it may be a good idea to adjust your riding to the circumstances instead of keeping your normal pace. You may also need to inhibit your autopilot because of how you’re feeling. If you feel stressed, for instance, your autopilot may not make the best choices for you. But if you make sure you keep an eye on yourself and your surroundings, you can ensure your autopilot doesn’t lead you astray.

Original language: English
Author: João Guimarães
Buddy: Felix Klaassen
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translator: Jill Naaijen
Editor Translation: Felix Klaassen

Credits: Top image courtesy of Juliano Ferreira and Pexels (CC0 1.0).

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