Zoning Out While Driving: Some Explanations

August 15, 2010

If, after buying a new car, you have ever reached for a non-existent gear shift lever or headlight switch, you get an idea of how at home we become in our cars. Some studies have shown that the average time a person spends in their car is 540 hours per year.

In 2005 the Telework Exchange found that the average federal employee spends 245 hours of their life just commuting to work each year. So it is not surprising that the solitary time we spend in the car represents something different from the focus of reading a book or the functionality of say, cutting the grass.

Although we may entertain ourselves while driving with audio books or music, we are able for the most part to continue the task of driving. But have you ever missed your planned exit from the interstate?

Carl Zimmer, a contributing writer for The New York Times and Discover considered this topic for the second publication in 2009. He cites a number of experiments dealing with the deviation of thought during assigned tasks and most interesting is what he tells the reader about those times when our minds wander but we are not aware that we are thinking of something else. The experimenter, Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, calls this loss of awareness “zoning out”.

He found that we zone out 13 percent of the time. As Zimmer describes it, “When our minds wander, we lose touch with the outside world. We don’t actually black out, of course, but we are more likely to make mistakes, fail to encode memories, or miss a connection. Zoning out makes us particularly prone to these errors.”

But the news about zoning out is not all bad. Other scientists used MRI brain scans to identify the areas of the brain that are active during mind wandering and found that two networks were  involved--the executive control system and the default network. The executive control system is a director of sorts, exerting an influence over our conscious and unconscious thoughts. Both networks play a part in “directing the brain’s activity toward important goals.”

The default network is interesting in the zoning out context because the brain scans showed that while the subjects were contemplating things like personal experiences or their future lives these regions were active.

Since both of the brain networks are active together, Schooler from UCSB, theorizes that mind wandering and the interplay of the two brain regions allow us to process information important to reaching decisions about both near term and distant goals. Zimmer offers anecdotal explanations that indicate that some pivotal creative thinking of serious importance may be attributable to mind wandering and zoning out.

While it is always good to plan for the future, there’s also a time and place for everything. Zimmer probably says it best for the purpose of this post, “It is one thing to drift away for a few lines of War and Peace. But if you’re pondering where you’ll be in five years as you drive through a busy intersection, you may not be around in five years to find out.”

[Discover Magazine]  

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