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Your autopilot mode is real – now we know how the brain does it

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From New scientist magazine 

EVER realised you've driven yourself home but haven't really been paying attention? Brain scans have revealed that when your mind wanders, it switches into "autopilot" mode, enabling you to do tasks quickly, accurately and without conscious thought.

This autopilot mode seems to be run by a set of brain structures called the default mode network (DMN). It was discovered in the 1990s, when scans revealed that people show patterns of brain activity even when they aren't really doing anything.

But what does the DMN do? Several studies have found that it seems to be involved in assessing past events and planning for the future. Others suggest the network is involved in self-awareness – although this has been called into question by findings that rats and newborns have a version of the DMN too.

It is unlikely that rats are conscious of themselves in the same way that humans are, says Deniz Vatansever at the University of York, UK. Instead, the DMN must have a more basic function, common to all animals.

Vatansever and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge wondered if the DMN might help us do things without paying much attention, such as tying shoelaces. To investigate, the researchers asked 28 volunteers to learn a card game while lying in an fMRI brain scanner.

In the game, each person received four cards. They were then given a fifth, and asked to match it to one of the four. But participants weren't told the rules – whether to match the cards by colour or shape, for example. Through trial and error, each person figured it out after a few rounds.

While this happened, their brain activity resembled patterns that are typical of learning minds. But as the game continued, and participants knew how to match the cards without much thinking, their brain patterns resembled those of using the DMN – and their responses became both faster and more accurate (PNASdoi.org/cfgp).

This suggests that when we "switch off", our brains go into an autopilot mode that allows us to perform tasks reasonably without much thought.

This might also help explain why some tasks – such as playing a well-known tune on the piano – suddenly seem much more difficult when you go from doing them absent-mindedly to consciously thinking about them.

In people who performed best in the experiment, the various brain regions fired together more consistently, showing more coordinated activity. This suggests that the more strongly connected a person's DMN is, the more effective their autopilot mode, says Vatansever.

It may be possible to train yourself to improve your autopilot mode. In other studies, people have been able to control their brain activity when shown real-time scans of their brains.

Similar "neurofeedback" training may enable people to boost their brain's autopilot mode, allowing them to perform better on tasks without directly focusing on them, says Paul Stillman at Ohio State University.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Brain's 'autopilot' mode lets you stop thinking"

Jessica Hamzelou

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3 hours ago, Gregexplore said:

My DMA malfunctions so many times that I suspect it's broken :whistling:

Where do I go for warranty repairs? Can I send it via post ? LOL :lol1:


I suspect the DMN is affected by ageing. (Greg? :D)  I notice we are good and quick at autopilot things, then we seem to lose confidence as we get older, finding it harder to do things we normally wouldn't think twice about.

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1 minute ago, hatcheckgirl said:


I suspect the DMN is affected by ageing. (Greg? :D)  I notice we are good and quick at autopilot things, then we seem to lose confidence as we get older, finding it harder to do things we normally wouldn't think twice about.

Wear and tear ...hmmm no warranty on that ..:(

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