On May 7, 2016, Joshua David Brown, the founder of tech company Nexu Innovations, died behind the steering wheel of his Tesla Model S.
Brown’s Tesla was motoring northbound along the highway in self-drive mode. Suddenly, a trailer coming from the south turned left and cut his path to diverge from the highway to a local road.
The Tesla S went under the trailer without slowing down. The roof got ripped off. The car moved another 297 feet, hit a utility pole and broke it, and stopped 50 feet later. Brown didn’t make it out alive.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s final report highlighted plenty of points. The truck driver should’ve yielded to the Tesla. The autopilot system was far from perfect. But the report also highlighted that Brown was inattentive.
“The combined effects of human error and the lack of sufficient system controls resulted in a fatal collision that should not have happened,” the NTSB’s report declared.
In all likelihood, Brown wasn’t inattentive; he was relaxed thanks to the self-driving automation. When the trailer swerved in his path, his brain snapped into panicked attention. It didn’t get enough time to figure out what was happening and how to prevent the accident.
Josh Brown’s brain had entered a cognitive tunnel — a mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.
Getting Out of The Cognitive Tunnel
This is not a post to dismiss or cancel self-driving tech and other automation. I’m not a Luddite.
Automation has improved the quality of our lives drastically. We can communicate with anyone across the world through a 6-inch device. Factories and transportation have become safer, offices are more efficient. Individuals can work on creative tasks while outsourcing the mundane jobs to machines.
But automation has also made us more prone to cognitive tunneling than earlier. Here’s what I mean.
Your brain’s attention span works like a spotlight, according to David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. It can go wide and diffused, or tight and focused. Whether the spotlight is relaxed or focused lies in your control.
When automated systems dictate where you pay attention, the brain’s spotlight relaxes. It does this to conserve energy for larger cognitive tasks. At every opportunity it can find, the brain tries to disconnect and unwind.
But bam! An unexpected event occurs and we get yanked out of our relaxed state.
A boss asks us a question when we’re texting under our desk in a meeting. A pedestrian appears in our path out of nowhere while we’re cruising. The security detection system goes off when we pass through it, absorbed in our Instagram feed.
Then we commit another mistake: reactive thinking. We focus on an easier and familiar action. We react out of habit, and bad things happen if they’re not the correct ones.
We give our boss a silly answer despite having a better one and upset her. We slam the brakes or twist the steering too far to avoid the pedestrian. We spend minutes searching our bag for the keys that set off the metal detection alarm and startled us when they were in our pocket all along.
And sometimes, as in Joshua Brown’s unfortunate case, we’re late to respond to grave situations with tragic outcomes.
Your life is a result of what you pay attention to.
Automation lets you save energy. But it doesn't have to dictate where you focus your attention. You don’t have to live at the mercy of email, Netflix, and Instagram.
Your life is a result of what you pay attention to. If you want to improve, treat your attention like your most valuable asset.
This might sound overwhelming, but it’s not. It simply demands continually shifting from autopilot to Condition Yellow — a state of relaxed alert.
Gun-fighting expert Jeff Cooper explains Condition Yellow as a state where there’s no specific threat in your surrounding, but you’re observing events with all your senses.
But observing your surroundings is just one half. The other half is orienting — making sense of what you observe.
Ask yourself: “What’s happening? Why is it happening? What does it mean? Have I seen something similar before?”
Turn what you observe into stories and replay them in your head. Share them with trusted friends and welcome them to point out gaps in your stories and sharpen your understanding.
Anticipate future events and how you’ll respond to them. Research shows that successful people daydream about how they’ll tackle future events rather than groveling over the past.
All this doesn’t just make you better at problem-solving; it also makes you better at problem-preventing because you can spot and address stray signs early.
You build better mental models and upgrade your awareness of the world and yourself.
You have better control not just of your attention but also your emotions. As behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher wrote in Rapt:
“You’ll be able to observe your emotions… Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”
Automation is upgrading itself to make our lives more comfortable. Likewise, upgrade your thinking to keep your eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel.
A productive life is one where you feel engaged in the present moment, where you pay attention to what’s important.
Are you focusing your attention on what’s important right now?