On November 2nd, 2017 we learned about

Accuracy and timing can improve when we engage our brain’s autopilot

You’re always at your best when in a state of focused determination, right? Everyone from coaches to fictional movie heroes push the idea that no matter how good we are at something, we’ll be even better if we concentrate on doing it as hard as we can! I feel like I regularly nag my kids about paying attention to their own efforts at all times to avoid being lazy or distracted. This all seems logical because we’ve been under appreciating the abilities of our brain’s default mode network (DMN).

The DMN can be thought of as your brain’s autopilot mode. It was first discovered when people were waiting in brain scanners without any task at hand to concentrate on. What caught researchers’ attention was that instead of seeing a completely idle brain, a specific hunk of neurons was unusually active. When the conscious mind was at rest, this structure seemed to still be busy, and not with autonomic functions like regulating heart beats or body temperatures. We know the DMN is active in infants and mice, but researchers are still piecing together when and how it works.

Switching to playing passively

A recent experiment found a way to activate the brain activity that seems to only take place in passive people. Volunteers in an fMRI had their brains monitored while they figured out a simple card game. They were presented with four cards with different markings, then told to match a fifth card to one of the first four. To give their brains something to really work on, people weren’t told if they needed to match colors, shapes or quantities, but after some trial and error everyone figured it out and continued the task easily enough.

Around the time people figured out the puzzle of the game, they switched over from their frontal cortices to their DMN. Without the question to answer, they could basically complete the simple matching game on autopilot, thanks to the basic, repetitive nature of the task. Interestingly, when they were no longer focusing on the game, they could actually make matches faster and more accurately. The DMN apparently learned the task well enough that it could carry on without tripping itself up in a way that the more probing parts of our brains aren’t used to.

Advantages of autopilot

Researchers speculate that this may play a role in what is sometimes referred to as being “in the zone,” or a “flow state.” Something that has been practiced and mastered to a degree doesn’t need to be consciously reexamined as you do it, and so activities like playing an instrument, knitting or swimming with a specific stroke might be done more smoothly if your DMN is running the show.

The fMRI tests found that people with more neuronal density in their DMN showed even more gains in their performance when they switched into autopilot mode. This is naturally leading to questions about how people can actively develop this relaxed, more automatic style of thinking to build up what their DMN can handle.

Source: Your autopilot mode is real – now we know how the brain does it by Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist