Autopiloting your life

There are many viral articles, posts, and books on how to “rewire your brain” or how to “create a more successful mindset”. But what is behind this idea? How does this work, at the biological level?

What we know

You and I perform hundreds of actions every day without “thinking”. Be it taking a shower, grabbing a glass of water, or navigating through social interactions. This ability means that we can respond quickly and efficiently to our environment, without having to activate the higher centers in our brain.

by meo

A. Burgess and A. Graybie studied how rats perform a given repetitive task: according to their findings, certain neurons in the brain are responsible for grouping of behaviours into a habitual routine, in a process they call ‘chunking.’

“Libraries of learned behavioural repertoires serve as the building blocks of much of our daily activities, allowing allocation of attention to new or complex tasks while minimising the effort toward accomplishing well-rehearsed, optimised tasks”

These neurons, located in a brain region which is highly involved in habit formation, fire at the beginning and the end of a habitual behaviour — signalling a beginning and an end of a routine.

According to other research done by the team of Dr. Vatansever, the human brain runs a DMN (Default Mode Network) which is essentially an autopilot that helps us make fast decisions in a well-known environment with established rules.

Their findings support a theory that two distinct systems help us to make decisions: a rational system for calculated decisions, and a faster system that makes more intuitive decisions.

This seems to make sense. If I repeat a given tasks frequently enough, my brain creates neural pathways and systems for a routine. I will eventually stop noticing it is happening and the autopilot model kicks in. I have successfully created a new brain mode.

So if we are exposed to repetitive events or actions for a sufficiently long period, we can create neurons for a new routine — for example learning a new language, or getting up in the morning to exercise.

Here is what I have noticed: as my new routine is established and I settle into the new habit, I eventually become accustomed to it. But while doing so, I start to feel inconvenienced when my new routine breaks. For example: I become surprised when my entry badge at the office does not work for the first time, I am impatient when my phone or laptop is too slow to respond, I get irritated by an unexpected event on my way to work. Why does this happen?

Is it possible that we can become defensive of our routines because it is biologically costly?

Photo by Danielle MacInnes

Offense

I don’t have all the answers yet, but what I do know is that some routines are better for us than others. Frequently repeating a task can lead us to creating a routine “unconsciously”. As we build more and more routines, we may find ourselves living an autopiloted life without conscious and critical thinking.

To counter this process, we need a tactic to maintain a critical mindset model. If executed well, this tactic may lead to a place of reward but also to a feeling of discomfort. It can make us aware of new wonderful insights about ourselves and it can also burst bubbles we grew accustomed to.

What can we do

  • Practise self awareness and mindfulness — observe yourself, your environment, and your habits. Here are some resources to get you started.
  • Seek external feedback — nothing bursts a bubble like a different point of view. Ask your friends, family, or colleagues for feedback with the intention to listen rather than taking the feedback personally.
  • Practise critical thinking — what environment are you creating around yourself? Who do you spend most time with? What do you read, watch, listen to? Expose your mind to new books, music or movies. Fact check, research and ask why.
  • Retrain your brain — try to break routines you have established by pushing your comfort zone. You can quit smoking, use your left hand if you are right-handed, change up your diet or exercise, change your daily commute.

At the end of the day even though we are biologically predisposed to creating routines, we can counterbalance this by remaining critical to our own mind and our environment.

Please comment below with your experiences on detecting routines, as well tips & suggestions on what has helped you on your journey so far.

Citations:

http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30033-2

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26740533

Thanks to Chad A Davis & Callum Tyler for proofread and critique

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