Is Your Brain on Automatic Pilot?

Isn’t it time to take the controls?

Posted Mar 04, 2018

mohamed hassan/Pixabay CC
Source: mohamed hassan/Pixabay CC

Many of our responses occur automatically without benefit of conscious awareness. This automatic level of consciousness, or automatic pilot as we can call it, operates in much the same way as a computer that performs its functions without the operator being aware of the many thousands of individual computations needed to complete even a simple task like displaying a sentence of text. 

Take, for example, a common task such as driving a car. How often have you had the experience of driving while your attention was focused on something else, such as mentally preparing for a talk with your boss or thinking through plans for your upcoming vacation? Experienced drivers allocate many of the mechanical tasks involved in routine driving, such as steering, accelerating, and braking, to an automatic level of attentional processing, in effect, turning on the automatic pilot in their head. 

This automatic level of consciousness is responsible for coordinating our movements or motor behaviors to ensure we keep the car within the dotted white lines and make the appropriate adjustments—speeding up, slowing down, steering, braking—as needed. Chances are the last time you drove your car you executed thousands of discrete hand and foot movements with little if any direct awareness of these responses. Consider driving to work. How many times did you slow down or speed up on your trip? How many right turns did you make? Don’t know? Neither do I. But someone we get to where we are headed and arrive safely.   

When our automatic level of consciousness is engaged, our conscious mind is free to perform other tasks. In fact, some people believe they do their best creative thinking while driving. (A passing thought occurs to me that perhaps I should try writing this blog while driving ... Nah.) You can interrupt the automatic level of consciousness in situations that require direct conscious involvement, such as if the car in front of you suddenly slows down or comes to a sudden stop, or when you need to decide in an instant whether a stoplight turning yellow means to stop or to accelerate very quickly. (You know who you are).  

Try a Minute Therapist thought experiment. Imagine driving around town while focusing all your attention on your driving. I mean focusing 100% of your awareness on your body movements. Picture in your mind’s eye every little movement of your hands and legs as you maneuver the car (e.g., “Now I'm turning the wheel clockwise about 90 degrees to make a right turn ... Now I'm engaging the clutch [remember those?] about 18 inches as I shift from first to second gear”).  Imagine how difficult, clumsy, or even awkward it would be to maintain full attention on every aspect of your driving, all in real time.

Much of our behavior is governed by automatic processes, including performing routine mechanical tasks such as washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, taking a shower, sewing a button, or painting the garage. These automatic processes work very well indeed without the need for our consciousness to closely monitor them. Yes, we are aware of what we are doing—we know, for example, that we’re washing the dishes and not scrubbing the floor. But our thinking selves may be far removed from the mechanical movements of our fingers and hands when we engage the automatic pilot in our head. In fact, bringing these automatic processes into full conscious awareness may interfere with our ability to function effectively. As the famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz was reputed to say, the worst thing that can befall a concert pianist is to think about the position of his fingers. We don’t need to consciously think about how to ride a bicycle or how to climb stairs. In fact, were we to stop and consciously think about every movement we make while climbing the stairs, we’d might lose our balance or even fall down the stairs (Don’t try this at home).

Not only is the brain wired to perform many mechanical tasks without conscious thought, but it is also configured to perceive stimuli without conscious attention. The environment presents us with a constant buzzing confusion of stimuli, such as sounds, visual images, and odors, as well as internal cues such as hunger, nausea, muscle tightness, and pain. These cues are interpreted by the brain without necessarily engaging conscious processes. For example, we may catch a whiff of a familiar scent that triggers unconscious associations, dredging up feelings associated with similar situations from the past in which were exposed to the same or similar odor.

Psychologists recognize that our thinking operates at two levels, a conscious level and an unconscious or automatic level. Though Freud was perhaps the first theorist to probe the depths of the unconscious mind, we are still in the infancy of scientific research on unconscious or preconscious thought. Scientific work on the workings of unconscious processes is an active area of study. But many psychologists today conceptualize unconscious processes in a very different way than did Freud. 

To Freud, the unconscious was a region of the mind in which there is an ongoing pitched battle between forces of instinctual impulses (sexual and aggressive instincts) arising from the darkened shroud in the mind he called id, which dukes it out with opposing forces commanded by the reality-oriented, problem-solving mental entity he called ego. Freud’s militaristic metaphor of dynamic struggles within the human mind between opposing mental forces put a late 19th century and early 20th-century gloss on the age-old distinction between passion and reason. 

Many contemporary psychologists have a very different conception of the unconscious mind. Rather than see it as a seething cauldron of battling unseen forces, they conceptualize the unconscious mind, or perhaps more properly, the preconscious or automatic mind, as a set of cognitive processes for sifting through the welter of stimuli impinging upon our sense organs and preparing responses to them. It is the automatic mind that allows us to recognize in an instant a familiar face, to play a musical instrument without thinking about the position of our fingers, and to ride a bicycle without thinking about how to maintain our balance. Many of our daily behaviors, perhaps most, involve automatic processes that lie outside the range of ordinary awareness. Our capacity for preconscious automatic thought may not be thinking as we usually conceptualize it to be, but rather it is a form of implicit, evaluative processing that allows us to perform mechanical movements and separate the wheat from the proverbial chaff of sensory data that continuously floods our sense organs. 

Now, what do these dual levels of consciousness—the automatic level and the conscious level—have to do with our emotional responses? Quite a bit, it turns out, as we find that many of our negative thoughts operate in an automatic fashion.

Negative thoughts impose harsh judgments on our abilities, harp on our character flaws, portend terrible consequences that lay ahead, instigate anger and prompt aggressive responses, and nag us about our weaknesses, mistakes, and misgivings. When they prick us, we experience corresponding emotions of fear, anger, guilt, worry, and so on. They also dampen our self-worth or how we think of ourselves. 

Some negative thoughts occur automatically, as though they just popped into our heads without any conscious effort. Other negative thoughts are products of conscious awareness, of ruminating on our problems, defects, flaws, and disappointments and failures. These disturbing thoughts occur in the domain of internal dialogues we have with ourselves during the course of the day, as whispers we speak to ourselves under our breath, or self-talk

In the Minute Therapist blog, we focus on the importance of paying attention to our inner speech—our self-talk—as well as to our emotional reactions in the moment so that we can bring to consciousness the underlying thought triggers for these feeling states. We need to stop and think about what we are thinking and feeling.

Unless we are able to identify and correct the negative thoughts that bounce around in our heads, we continue to bear the brunt of the negative emotions they trigger. But how can we corral these thought triggers, especially those that seem to pop into our heads without any conscious effort to put them there? We may only be aware of our emotional reactions, but not the thoughts that set them off.  A patient in my practice might say, “Well, I don’t know what made me feel this way. I just began to feel this way.” 

Let your emotions be your guide. Work backwards from the emotions to the underlying thoughts or beliefs that trigger them. People are generally more aware of their emotional states than the fleeting thoughts that pass through their heads. To capture these phantom thoughts, we need to slow down the action and bring them to the foreground of awareness. We can use our emotional states as a guide to ferret out the controlling or triggering cognitions. 

Here’s a Minute Therapist technique to identify these disturbing thoughts. Ask yourself: What am I feeling at this very moment? Anger? Guilt? Worry? Sadness? All of these? Next, probe your thoughts at the moment by asking yourself questions of the sort:

  • “What thoughts are going through my mind?”
  • “What am I thinking about?”
  • “What memories does this feeling evoke?”
  • “What am I saying to myself under my breath?”

Jot down any thoughts that come to mind. Keep a record in a thought diary, noting the day, time, feeling state (anger, anxiety, depression, etc.), situation (where you were and what you were doing), and the accompanying thoughts in your mind. 

By keeping a running record of the thoughts that accompany negative feelings, you can better identify underlying patterns in your thinking that give rise to your emotional reactions. As we’ll find in other entries on this blog, you can inspect these thoughts, evaluate them in the light of reality (are they accurate or distorted?), and substitute healthier, more adaptive thoughts whenever you find yourself drifting into negative thinking.

If you struggle playing the role of thought detective, you may want to consult a therapist, especially someone well-practiced in cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT that focuses on identifying triggering disturbing thoughts and classifying them, and then working with patients to help them change their thinking patterns. A therapist can often find the thread that connects your inner disturbing thoughts and the distorted beliefs they may represent. Disturbing thoughts often relate to deeper core beliefs instilled in childhood or early in life that lurk in the shadows of the mind. To change troubling emotions, we need to identify and change the underlying thoughts that trigger them and the core beliefs that sustain them. 

© 2018 Jeffrey S. Nevid.