Your Brain Has an Autopilot Mode (And You Might Want to Fine-Tune It)

Ever wonder how you can carry out some tasks without thinking about them?. Erik Starck/Flickr

Ever feel like you're "in the zone," able to carry out tasks effortlessly without thinking about them? You're probably functioning on autopilot.

The idea that our brains have an autopilot mode has been around since the 1990s, when researchers first took notice to the fact that patients lying in brain scanners had significant brain activity even when they were just zoning out. Now new research seems to have pinpointed where this autopilot system is and how it works, and it could lead to new ways of strengthening our brains to perform learned tasks, reports New Scientist.

Researcher Deniz Vatansever and colleagues asked 28 volunteers to sit in an fMRI brain scanner and learn a card game. It was a novel card game that required genuine learning at first, which predictably fired up brain activity associated with active, conscious, learning minds. But as the volunteers became accustomed to the rules of the game, something interesting began to happen within their brains: the task of playing the game seemed to get delegated to a new brain region known as the default mode network (DMN).

Upon switching over to the DMN, the volunteers' responses within the game also became faster and more accurate despite the fact that they had less conscious engagement with the game. In other words, it's more efficient for our brains to switch to an autopilot mode distinct from conscious thinking once a rote task is sufficiently learned. This is a process that helps explain the testimony of musicians when they learn to play a tune on instinct, or athletes that seem to get in a rhythm without having to think about their next move.

Of course, this is also the mode that we all enter when performing simple tasks like tying our shoelaces or driving a car down a familiar route.

Better yet, your autopilot mode can be trained

One important takeaway from these findings is not only that our autopilot mode is essential to our ability to efficiently and effectively carry out learned tasks, but that this mode can be fine-tuned, buffed up, and trained to be more powerful. Researchers found that people with DMN structures that are more strongly connected and coordinated also performed better in the card game.

So it might be possible to train yourself to have a better autopilot mode. For instance, other studies have shown that “neurofeedback” training, which involves people attempting to control their brain activity when shown real-time scans of their brains, could allow people to consciously improve brain function even in areas that are typically out of conscious control.

This kind of training could improve the instincts of musicians, help athletes get in the groove, or just assist to the rest of us in more efficient multi-tasking.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.