Monday, July 8, 2013

Autopilot


We moved into our new house this week (which explains my relative “silence” I suppose – most of my time over the past 7 days has been devoted to unpacking boxes, boxes and more boxes.) I’m overall quite pleased to be living closer to my job and in a nicer (although not much larger) space, but I have to confess it’s quite an adjustment. I am just not the biggest fan of change and disruption, even when I acknowledge it’s for a good cause.

One of my mentors during my residency training told our class that we (human beings) operate out of our unconscious about 80% of the time. I don’t think any of us believed him at the time, since as young doctors we were convinced that we were in total conscious control of our faculties and behavior most of the time. Other people might operate out of the unconscious, but not us. Well, life has certainly shown me over and over that he was wiser than we understood at the time. If you don’t believe me, moving is an excellent way to demonstrate this to yourself.

The trouble with moving is that all of your “autopilot” routines are disrupted. Where is your toothbrush? Where does your purse go when you walk in the door? What does your door key look like, for that matter? All of these things that you do on a daily basis without much thought, all of the routines that you run from your implicit, muscle and action based memory, now require conscious thought. It’s tedious and exhausting (and this is on top of the physical exhaustion of carrying items up and down the stairs), not to mention very slow. Nothing works smoothly until you re-establish the routines.

There are good reasons that much of our behavior is generated by these autopilot routines. Our brains are excellent at matching patterns based on limited data and quickly coming up with a previously learned behavioral response. Which is really great, say, when the brake lights flash on the car in front of you. You don’t have a lot of time to be thinking “Hmm… those red lights came on. When that happened before, the car slowed down. Maybe that will happen again. Perhaps I should hit my brakes. Which pedal is it? Oh yes, the one to the left of the gas pedal. Ok, let’s move my foot over... SLAM!! Oh my, I just rear ended that car.” Taking the time to consciously think it out is too slow. You’re going to be in a lot of car accidents unless you have a fast autopilot routine that goes (without words, actually) “– brake lights- brake pedal –stop!” 

Research demonstrates that putting yourself in novel situations, situations that require more conscious thought and thus brain power, is actually good for your memory. It appears that cognitive activities such as puzzles, travel and of course social interactions can preserve intellectual functioning over time. So it is reassuring to think that moving into a new house is good for my brain. It will probably take me about a month to re-establish my routines around the house. The more I do something (like brushing my teeth) the more rapidly I will re-pattern that action. I can already tell you where my toothbrush is. I can’t quite find it in the dark yet, but I’m sure that will come soon. Things that I don’t do very often will come more slowly and require more conscious thought (where do we keep the birthday candles again?) but over the course of a month most of what I will do frequently will become automatic once again. Then I can go back to my own preferred forms of cognitive stimulation - reading and writing.