Have you ever felt like you just went through your day on autopilot mode? It’s not just you. Scientists have now found that you’re not just imagining it, and they’ve also found how our brains do it.
Autopilot mode engaged
Have you ever managed to walk, drive, or ride home from school or work without even realizing it? Of course, this doesn’t happen when you’re new to the area or you’re taking an unfamiliar route. However, if you’ve lived somewhere for enough time, it’s likely that you can navigate the way home without expending too much brain energy on it.
This is exactly what autopilot mode is like for us. We can zone out and carry out tasks without having to think about them too much because of something called the “default mode network” (DMN), which is made up of a number of brain regions. The DMN is active when we’re daydreaming, remembering, thinking of the future, at rest, or on autopilot.
The DMN is at play when we're at rest.
Certain tasks make corresponding regions of the brain more active. For example, when we’re looking at a beautiful piece of art, our visual cortex comes to life. If we’re in motion, our motor cortex becomes active. When we’re not really actively doing anything, however, the DMN lights up.
A new study explored the role of the DMN in engaging our autopilot mode. 28 participants did a task while they were inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The participants were asked to match a card (for example, the two of clubs) with one of four others. It was up to the participants to figure out if the matching was based on color, number, or suit.
The scans showed that during the process of learning the matching rule, a region of the brain called the dorsal attention network was active. Unsurprisingly, this is the part of the brain associated with handling tasks that need attention. Once the participants learned the rule, however, the DMN was the more active part of the brain. The association between DMN activity and the activity in the hippocampus enabled the participants to get better at their task. The hippocampus, it’s worth noting, is associated with memory.
Navigating familiar surroundings doesn't take much brain power.
So what’s the significance of having a more active DMN? According to the researchers, when our DMN is more active, it allows us to predict what happens next. For example, if you’ve been driving the same route for years, or even months, you know which turns to take without having to actively search your memory to see whether you should make a left or right turn. "It is essentially like an autopilot that helps us make fast decisions when we know what the rules of the environment are,” says Deniz Vatansever, one of the researchers.
However, when we’re in unfamiliar territory, the DMN takes a backseat. It’s basically like taking over the operating systems manually, overriding the DMN.
Researchers hope that their research will help people with certain mental disorders. After all, abnormal DMN activity has been associated with disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia. Now that we have a better understanding of how the DMN works, there may be a way to improve treatments for these disorders.
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