25 Oct How our Autopilot in the Brain is more active than we thought
Have you ever driven home from work and wondered how you missed driving through a certain place, or didn’t “click” that you changed gears or braked appropriately? Do you “automatically” switch on your laptop and set up the same tabs each day?
Your autopilot is in active mode, of course! However, recent research has discovered this part of the brain – our subconscious or the Default Mode Network (DMN) – also plays an active role when we make decisions.
The subconscious part of the brain which triggers when our mind wanders or we are doing a task we have practised many times is now known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) within the brain. This autopilot or as we call it on our Advance courses – the Taxi Driver. The tasks such as walking, brushing our teeth, or driving have all been practised so often we can carry them out subconsciously, so that our mind may wander or we may consciously be listening to the radio or music or taking part in a conversation. It also means we respond quickly and efficiently to the environment – such as braking appropriately, changing gears, and being aware of all the basic road signs without having to activate the higher centres and consciously respond to every moment.
The autopilot or our Taxi Driver leads our behaviour through the strengthened dendrites formed by practice and conscious thoughts in the past as we learned to achieve the activity. However, recent research at the University of Cambridge has investigated whether and how the Default Mode Network contributes to attention-demanding, goal-oriented tasks that involve cognitive flexibility.
For the current study, 28 volunteers were asked to match a target card with one of four cards shown. The participants were not told the rules of matching the cards but had to work it out for themselves through trial and error (the first part of the task). Their brain activity was monitored throughout using a scanner. In this acquisition phase, the dorsal attention network — an area of the brain known to play a role in attention-demanding information — was activated.
The second part of the study examined the brain as the participants knew the rules and matched the cards without thinking about them, their responses were faster and more accurate. The fMRI scan also conveyed the DMN was more active during this part of the task.
The participants proved to be faster and more accurate at the task if their DMN activity was more strongly associated with activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory. This implies that the higher performers carried out the task more successfully by accessing stored memories of the rule laid down during the acquisition phase.
Lead author Deniz Vatansever says the DMN allows us to predict what is going to happen and reduce our need to think.
“Rather than waiting passively for things to happen to us, we are constantly trying to predict the environment around us.”
“Our evidence suggests it is the default mode network that enables us to do this. It is essentially like an autopilot that helps us make fast decisions when we know what the rules of the environment are.”
How is this important to us in our professional and personal lives?
These findings are very important in how we make decisions and how we react and behave in situations. We explain on our Advance courses about our “Taxi Driver” leading us to react and behave in ways we are accustomed to because those dendrites are strong, even if we are not consciously making that decision.
However, now the research has found that the dendrites formed when we learn a skill, a rule, a task or develop an idea or attitude contribute to the Default Mode Network even when we are not consciously thinking about that activity, task or idea.
As the Senior study researcher Dr Emmanuel Stamatakis explains: “The old way of interpreting what’s happening in these tasks was that because we know the rules, we can daydream about what we’re going to have for dinner later, and the DMN kicks in. In fact, we showed that the DMN is not a bystander in these tasks: it plays an integral role in helping us perform them.”
In other words, the stronger the dendrites in our memory (the hippocampus) during the acquisition phase – learning a skill, developing a habit, the more effective this proves to be when we are making our subconscious decisions during everyday tasks such as driving, managing our I.T facilities, reacting in conversations by our body language, and how we respond in emergencies.
Our repeated behaviours completed when we are on autopilot are determined by how we formed our beliefs, attitudes and thoughts during the acquisition or learning phase. By becoming aware and effective at our Positive Self Talk and being our active Positive Mindset Manager, our Default Mode Network – our Taxi Driver will lead to more effective and faster intuitive decisions and behaviour.