The human brain going into auto pilot


How does it work, what’s the benefit and why can’t we really recall much if anything during an autopilot episode?

In: 5

I don’t have an explanation for this but I just find it fascinating. There are times when I’m driving and I think to myself “Was I paying attention to the lights back there?” I know I was likely following all the road rules but there are still times where I doubt if I did.

If that is considered going into autopilot, if not sorry for going off topic.

Disclaimer, this is an educated guess, I’m not an actual neuroscientist, I do computational neurology.

TL; DR: Repeated activities become semi-automatic, so unless we are doing something else that engages us, the brain decides to do a little extra processing of other information from the day, similar to what it does during sleep, but less effective.

I’ll start with some background:

I’ll use driving as an example. Driving is an activity that requires a lot of attention to do, but we eventually reach a point where we have done it so much that doing it becomes subconscious.

How this happens is we keep driving over and over, and that traverses the “driving” neural pathways a lot, and the connections between them that make the brain work gradually strengthen and go from a game trail in the undergrowth to something like a highway.

Once we reach this point, we are able to offload the task of driving to our subconscious mind, and use our conscious mind, the active part that we engage with things, on other tasks, such as talking to people. It’s also why when you are in a potentially dangerous situation in a car with a passenger, even if you were having a conversation you will focus and concetrate on driving. Same goes for playing a game, exercise, etc., you require the full attenion of the conscious mind to do the task at hand, and thus it becomes dominant

Now onto why “autopilot” happens:

So as I explained above, we reach a point where we can do tasks subconsciously, which means we aren’t actively engaging our mind, and our conscious mind is idle. Continuing the driving example, I’ve driven between home and work so many times that I can do it with barely any thought, so I’m not actively engaging with my travel.

What can happen when the conscious mind is idle is we go into a kind of processing state, using the time to process and store memories of other things that have happened during the day, so we aren’t taking in many new memories while doing it. We often don’t clearly remember what happened unless something else occupies out conscious mind, such as a conversation.

And finally, benefits:

It gives our brain more time to handle and focus on other, less repetitive things that happened during the day, similar a mini extension of sleep, but not as effective.

You may need to be more specific with your scenario. Technically everything you do is autopilot. The default acceptance state for anything should be the null state. The problem is that most people speak about human behaviour under the assumption that there’s someone at the wheel so to speak. The problem is that this isn’t the null position on the matter and so it should require sufficient empirical evidence before assuming that position.

In terms of evidence to suggest that people have any autonomy over their functions is exactly zero. So then by current scientific evidence then everything you do is autopilot because you ultimately don’t control what you do and what you do is merely the inevitable resolution of the laws of physics as they pertain to the state of the biochemistry in your brain coupled with the causal events happening around you.

Essentially we are all just conscious witnesses to a chain of causality that began with the Big Bang. You can include random events in that as well and that still doesn’t give anyone agency.