You log out and push away from your desk at the office. You grab your keys and walk toward the door. In the parking lot, about 20 feet from your rear bumper, you press the button on your key fob to flash your cars lights and signal it is unlocked.
You get in. You stick your key in the ignition. You buckle your seat belt. You step on the brake and put your car in reverse. You maneuver your way out to the drive way.
You’re on your way home.
You sit in the left-hand turn lane. When the traffic signal glares a green arrow, you step on the accelerator toward the on-ramp.
You’re on the freeway — the long, straight shot to your own personal oasis. You’ll be home soon.
A song comes on the radio. You feel the music and whisper along to the lyrics. You lose yourself in the sounds. You do that sometimes.
All of a sudden a break comes over the air — a commercial. You look up through the windshield and realize that your exit is the very next one. And you need to get over three lanes.
‘How did this happen?’ you ask yourself.
‘How did I end up this far into my trip already? I don’t remember driving here.’
You snapped out of it.
Yes, autopilot is a real thing.
Science even has a name for it — default mode network, or DMN.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have shown that the DMN plays an important role in allowing us to switch to ‘autopilot’ once we are familiar with a task.
In a recent study, researchers summarized that our brains are trying to be the most efficient. And with the ever-changing environment of today, the brain searches for routine, solutions when that environment is predictable.
When your brain can switch from critical thinking to automatic habitual action, it does so to maintain efficiency.
“The default mode network is essentially like an autopilot that helps us make faster decisions when we know what the rules of the environment are.” Deniz Vatansever, head researcher said.
The Power of Habit
Autopilot, the researchers found, is simply a habit.
And habits, as we all know, can be good or bad and hard to break.
“I believe we choose certain habits and routines, in our life to make our day more complete and fulfilling,” Kirra Perez, a volunteer said. “Some are more welcome than others, like chores.”
Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published earlier this year of their discovery of specific neural patterns involving the human brain and habit formation.
This pattern, known as ‘chunking,’ fire at the outset of a learned routine, go quiet while it is carried out, then fire again once the routine has ended.
Your brain goes silent during the action —truly, an autopilot function.
You don’t notice the effect until the action has ended. Your brain acts in the most efficient way it can, saving critical thinking until after the habit is complete.
That is where our brains can start to analyze what took place.
“I feel, if I let it, the habit can make or break my mood,” Perez said.
- Science says habits can stay for the long-term.
- What if we could make happiness a habit?
Running on Autopilot: scientists find important new role for ‘daydreaming’ network. Original written by Craig Brierley, University of Cambridge. Note: content edited.
CC The text cited in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Distinctive brain pattern helps habits form
Original written by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office. Note: content edited.
Vatansever, D, Menon, DK, Stamatakis, EA. Default Mode Contributions to Automated Information Processing. PNAS; 23 Oct 2017; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1710521114
Martiros, Nune; Burgess, Alexandra A.; Graybiel, Ann M. Inversely Active Striatal Projection Neurons and Interneurons Selectively Delimit Useful Behavior Sequences. Current Biology; 19 Feb 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.01.031