Mindful Monday (January 23rd)

In the last of our Mindful Monday posts Torque director and Mindfulness teacher, Belle Moss talks about the pros and cons of living life on Autopilot.

What exactly do you mean by Autopilot?

Our minds are incredibly complex and one aspect of our brains function is the ability to complete routine tasks without using up unnecessary power or thought – in effect working on autopilot.

Once behaviour is ‘fixed’ we don’t have to think about things like how to drive a car, or how to cook our favourite meal, or where the supermarket is, we just do it or know without conscious thought based on experience and learnt behaviour. 

Where does Autopilot thinking come from?

It goes back to what is called our primitive brain and our instinct for survival.  As cave people 200,000 years ago if we used a watering hole and were surprised by a Saber-tooth tiger using the same space our brains quickly learnt to associate danger with that spot so that on future visits to the watering hole we’d be instinctively more careful – a clever defence mechanism in the face of danger.

So fast forward to modern times, we still have that exact same area of our brain, working in exactly the same way – not a lot of Saber-tooth tigers to be concerned about, but those danger signals to our brains are still playing loud and clear.

Is there a downside to running on Autopilot?

I’m afraid so. If we rely on our brains to make these continual assumptions for us without ever challenging them then we can sometimes find ourselves missing out on whole areas of our lives by sleep walking through them or becoming stuck in a loop experiencing the same emotional response to certain events because that’s what we’ve always done. 

One example might be a car journey where you’ve driven from point A to point B and on arrival you realise you can’t remember a thing about getting there. Or imagine a scenario that stresses you out, public speaking for example. Should we just accept that we ‘don’t like’ that situation?  Do we even know why?  Is every single experience going to be exactly the same? Over time we may find that we feel a level of panic about situations that haven’t happened yet and that’s where the reliance on autopilot plays against us – our primitive brain signals danger not because there is actually something to fear (no Saber-tooth tigers in the audience), but because that was a previous emotional response. It’s trying to help us by replicating the same feelings when actually all that’s happening is anxiety.

So, what can we do?

We imagine that we’re 100% in charge of our brains, the information we receive and how we use it to make decisions, but when you start to consider the way our brains actually work and the millions of years of evolution that have shaped our responses, it’s often not actually the case.  So take the time to stop every now and again and appreciate the moment, even if you’re doing something mundane – and if you’re feeling worried about a given situation just ask yourself where the danger is – it might not be as close as you think.