Your brain does not turn off when you drive a car or wash the dishes. A new study in the UK found that there's a different region of the brain that turns on when you do mundane tasks. While the idea of going on autopilot is not new (it's technically called the Default Mode Network or DMN and scientists have known about it for years), researchers have found that it might be possible to train this portion of your brain to work harder and more efficiently. For office workers, that could be very good news.
The study, conducted by Dr. Deniz Vatansever at the University of York in the UK, involved 28 volunteers who learned to play a new card game. They didn't know the rules, so they had to focus on how the game worked--matching colors and shapes. The researchers then used a brain scanner to find out which portions of the brain were active.
The section of the brain that is well known to control cognitive learning lit up initially. Once the participants learned the game and went into autopilot mode, a different region lit up. The participants then became even better at the game than before.
The study essentially proves some of the theories found in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which made similar claims about how autopilot works.
"Our study shows that there is a collection of brain regions called the default mode network (previously thought to be irrelevant for the processing of external information) that is more active (as measured by the MRI scanner) while the participants make automated decisions," says Dr. Vatansever, speaking to Inc.com. "Moreover, greater interaction of this network with regions of the brain that we know to be associated with memory (e.g., the hippocampus) is linked to faster and more accurate decisions only when we know the context of the environment."
When the volunteers switched to autopilot mode, they became more efficient and worked faster at the game. It was not an "off" switch, but an "on" switch.
You can imagine how this works when you drive a car. Long before Google invented autonomous vehicles, we started using autopilot to make a quick run up to the grocery store or to comb our hair in the morning. We don't have to think about where we place our foot on the brake or how to move the brush. Our brains allow us to think about other things, which is quite remarkable. It's not quite multitasking, but it's very close.
The interesting finding is that we might be able to improve our abilities in autopilot mode, to become more efficient at them over time through training and repetition. This might involve trying to make some tasks like deleting old emails or gathering social media analytics data more rote and relying less on primary brain functions.
Indeed, another study found that participants who watched an MRI scan of their own brain in real-time could learn to put themselves into autopilot mode and would then become more efficient and faster at those tasks, according to New Scientist. "There are studies suggesting that such interactions in the brain might be plastic and improve via learning, thus it will be an interesting avenue to explore in the future," says Vatansever. "As for how this might impact worker productivity, this would be difficult to comment on at this stage."
For most of us checking email--we'll have to wait and see where this leads.