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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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The length of our walking guides is given in miles and rounded to the nearest full mile (whole number) for simplicity. For short walks (of less than 2 miles) or walks that have a length that ends in .5, a more accurate walk length may be given in the first section of the walk introduction. For example, the Length in the header may be listed as 6 miles, and the introduction may confirm that the exact length of the walk is 5.5 miles. The walk length is calculated from the GPS file that was created by the walk author GPS tracking the walk whilst walking, using the iFootpath App GPS Tracker, meaning it is very accurate. Our bespoke tracker is particularly detailed and plots a walkers position about every 10 seconds. The tracker is calibrated to match two other reputable map and walking sources, Ordnance Survey and Nike. As with all standardised walk and map lengths, the distance does not take account of hills and slopes, just the distance you would measure using a piece of string on a flat map version of the terrain, so hilly walks will feel longer than stated. If you track the route using another GPS App or Tracker App or Fitness Device, you can expect the distance you record to be different due to different calibrations. This is particularly true of those Apps and devices that count your motion and steps – these can only guess the distance you have travelled with each step and so are much less accurate.

Grade (Boots)

The grade of a walk is an indicator of how difficult the terrain is that you will encounter along the way. This does not take into account the walk length but does suggest how challenging the walk will be. It takes into account things like hills, path surfaces and obstacles (like stiles, gates, steps and rock scrambles). An easy walk, graded as 1 (and shown as 1 Boot) indicates a walk that is essentially flat, has no sharp hills to climb, has no stiles, is easy to navigate (probably along a well-worn path) and is suitable for most levels of fitness. A difficult walk, graded as 5 (and represented by 5 Boots) indicates a walk that is strenuous and involves steep ascents and/or descents. It may be technically challenging involving difficult terrain or obstacles that require scrambling with your hands. Please note that the grading for walks is subjective and open to interpretation and should only be used as a guide when selecting a walk.

NOTE: Do be aware that the level of stamina required for any walk will vary depending on both the walk length and the difficulty grade - you should only walk within your limits.

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