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The Science of Walking on Autopilot

One of the joys of iFootpath is having access to more than a thousand UK walking routes, meaning there is always somewhere new to discover. Many of us also have our tried and tested favourite routes and, if you are like me, you may have four or five local dog-walking routes that you have walked hundreds of times. If so, have you noticed that sometimes you walk these routes whilst barely noticing your surroundings? It’s a bit like travelling to work, when some days you are not sure you can remember all the details of the commute. This always left me a little worried and wondering if a such a lapse of concentration might be unsafe. Well researchers at Cambridge University have put my mind at rest, with research showing that autopilot mode is a very normal part of our brain’s activity…

walking plastic manCambridge researchers carried out a study on 28 volunteers, looking into the way our brain’s default mode contributed to automated processing of information. A collection of brain regions known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) has been identified previously, and is more active when we are rest and particularly when we are daydreaming or thinking about the past or future. Researchers are still working to identify its exact purpose and this study has made another stride forward in this area.

Volunteers were asked to match a target playing card, such as the two of clubs, with one of four cards shown. They had to work out if the cards were supposed to be matched on colour, number or shape through trial and error. Their brain activity was monitored throughout using a scanner. While they were learning the rule, known as the acquisition stage, a part of the brain known as the Dorsal Attention Network was more active. It has been associated with processing information that demands attention. Once they knew the rule and were applying it, the Default Mode Network (DMN) was more active.

This makes sense in terms of allowing our brains to function in the most efficient manner. Our life experiences are made up of new and unknown activities where we are dealing with variable demands (requiring active concentration), along with routine and predictable challenges that require fast and effective responses (that we can navigate using learnt patterns).

autopilotLead author Deniz Vatansever says the DMN allows us to predict what is going to happen and reduce our need to think. "It is essentially like an autopilot that helps us make fast decisions when we know what the rules of the environment are. So, for example, when you're driving to work in the morning along a familiar route, the Default Mode Network will be active, enabling us to perform our task without having to invest lots of time and energy into every decision. When the environment changes, and no longer conforms to our expectations, our brain enters a manual mode that overrides the automatic system, or DMN activity.”

It seems our regular walking and driving journeys are meant to be run on autopilot, with our manual mode kicking in to override this only if something unexpected occurs. This also explains why it feels so much more exhilarating when discovering a new walking route – when the Dorsal Attention Network is actively processing all the new sights, smells and sounds.

The researchers hope their findings may lead to more studies to help those with some diseases and mental health disorders. The DMN can behave abnormally in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) whilst in disorders such as addiction, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, patients can have automatic thought patterns that drive repeated, unpleasant behaviour.


2 November 2017

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