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The Brain Advantage: Train your Autopilot…and how to turn it off

(Editor’s Note: as part of our Author Speaks Series, you can enjoy below a stimulating excerpt from the new book The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research).brain_cv

Brain-imaging techniques allow researchers to witness the brain’s activity reflected in a rainbow of colors on a computer screen. When brain cells are highly active ”working harder” the result shows up as brighter colors on the computer screen. Brilliant reds and yellows indicate brain areas that are most active. In contrast, the blues and greens on a scan show a quieter, less active brain.

What would we expect to find if we examined the brain scans of people with high versus average IQ scores? We might picture the active brain of an Einstein as a hotbed of smoldering colors ”but we’d be wrong. Neurologist Richard Restak summarized a UCLA study that compared individuals with high IQs to those with average IQs. Restak wrote, The researchers started off with the seemingly reasonable idea that ‘smarter brains work harder, generate more energy, and consume more glucose. Like light bulbs, the brains of bright people were expected to illuminate more intensely than those of dimwits with a reduced wattage.  What they discovered instead was exactly the opposite. Higher IQ people had cooler, more subdued brain scans “while their less intellectually gifted counterparts lit up like miniature Christmas trees..

Why would smarter brains work less hard? One strong bet is that when we are inexperienced ”when we still have a lot to learn”we have to make a conscious effort to think about what we’re doing. But later, after we’ve become more adept, much of what initially took effort becomes automatic.

The good news is that functioning on autopilot allows us to expend less brain energy on the routine aspects of the work. Our expertise allows us to direct our energy elsewhere. For example, novices use different parts of their brains than experts do. This happens in areas as different as playing chess and swinging a golf club.These studies show that less-experienced people think more about carrying out the mechanics of the task and encoding information.Experts, on the other hand, function on automatic pilot in these areas. In fact, experts sometimes falter “flubbing a basketball free throw or a golf put” when their focus shifts back to the mechanics.

So functioning on autopilot can be a great advantage. But it can also work against us. As mentioned in chapter 1, international rock climber Lynn Hill was preparing to climb a wall in Buoux, France in 1989. She threaded her rope through her harness but then, instead of tying the knot, she stopped to put on her shoes. While tying her shoes, she talked to another woman. The thought occurred to me that there was something I needed to do before climbing, she later recalled.29 But Hill dismissed the thought and climbed the wall. When she leaned back to rappel to the ground, she fell seventy-two feet. Fortunately, tree branches broke her fall and Hill survived.

Lawrence Gonzales, who tells this story in his book Everyday Survival, points out that more training would not have helped Lynn Hill. “In fact,” as Gonzales writes, “experience contributed to her accident.” She could tie her rope to her harness on autopilot but the similarity between tying shoes and tying the rope “tricked” her brain into thinking she had done what she needed to do.

So there are two sides to our ability to function on autopilot. Doing so can lead to major mistakes, as Lynn Hill’s story illustrates. On the other hand, there are distinct benefits as well. When we are trying to become more expert, in many cases our goal is to get good enough so that we can be on autopilot!

Interesting, but so what?

How can I use this information as a business leader?

Among their many challenges, leaders have two key responsibilities: developing their people and increasing efficiency. Increasing efficiency often involves standardizing, automating or simplifying processes. However, carrying out routines more automatically also has one major drawback. It increases the risk that, like Lynn Hill failing to knot her rope, people will at times implement these procedures mindlessly.

In an ideal world, for efficiency’s sake, employees would conduct much of their work on autopilot. Then they would shift off autopilot when the situation required more conscious thought. The key question for business leaders is how to ensure that people stick to autopilot when it’s working well, yet make the shift to more conscious deliberation when it’s needed.

What if

1. What if business leaders use automated systems to remind them to periodically go off autopilot?

Professionals often step back from recently-completed projects and debrief. They assess how things went and consider what they might do differently next time. Why not extend this practice to well-established routines? Team members could, for example, look at the plans they are creating for carrying out a project. Then they could take some time to discuss questions like Is this the most efficient possible way to do this? and Is there someone else whose perspective we should get on this before we start?

Similarly, individuals can take a few minutes before they jump into their own work to ask Is there a better way to do this? Would it be better to have someone else do this? One business leader experimented with sending herself questions like these as instant messages that appeared throughout the day. When one of these prompts appeared, it didn’t usually change her behavior immediately because it didn’t apply directly to what she was doing. But over time, she internalized the questions and they started popping into her head at times when they did apply.

In many organizations, quality or continuous improvement reviews are intended to serve a similar purpose. But all too often, the reviews themselves become scripts that are executed with little thought or consideration. Leaders should shift their mindset from thinking of quality or other reviews as administrative tasks and instead approach them as opportunities to turn off autopilot.

mvh2.thumbnailMadeleine Van Hecke, Ph.D., is obrain_cvne of the authors of The Brain Advantage: Become a More Effective Business Leader Using the Latest Brain Research, with Lisa P. Callahan, Brad Kollar and Ken A. Paller, Ph.D. Ms. Van Hecke is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, consultant, and author.

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9 Responses

  1. Jon Peltier says:

    Very interesting article.

    One way people in manufacturing use to turn off autopilot is by tracking various measures using statistical process control. This allows you to tell when a process is running in control, and when it goes out of control. When the process strays, there are well established tools to help find causes for deviation.

    Looking for and fixing causes for nonconformance is the part of manufacturing that requires us to turn off our autopilot. During routine operations, as long as the data shows the process is in control, we want to be on autopilot.

  2. A very well thought out and interesting article.

    The last statement is probably the most powerful. It is exactly that scenario of “oh it’s time for the three month review” which is as you say is treated as a chore or something that has to be done because the system demands it, rather than an opportunity to check that what we are doing or have done is being carried out in an optimal way.

    Autopilot allows to feel as if we are working hard without taking ownership of “could we do better?” or “is there an alternative way that would work better here”. It allows us to be a bit lazy.

  3. David Dickinson says:

    Interesting, indeed. I wonder what is the connection between the differentiated functions of the two cerebral hemispheres and the ability to sense danger? My hypothesis would be that we should foster right-brain training in the workplace to increase the facility of the right brain to sense something is out of the ordinary and wrong. Instead, we put all our energy into supporting left-brain efficiencies — how to be more organized, how to do more work, how to work faster, etc. Left brain Autopilot is great 90 per cent of the time. But to be prepared for any contingency, our right brains need to be trained and nurtured, too, so they can spring into action when needed.

  4. Keith says:

    I’m sorry, but this book seems like so many other cliche brain books that I’ve encountered. The idea of being on autopilot seems like such a small foundation upon which to build a book. The examples provided seem very weak to me.

    That rock climber was not duped by her training; she was distracted from it by a shoelace and a conversation. That is certainly not a good example of autopilot leading someone astray, and while I am sure that there are better ones I doubt a litany of such examples would make for good reading. I would feel like a child sitting in Sunday school again.

    I do not understand how an entire book based upon this single idea of autopilot would be of more than passing interest. It is such a banal concept that nearly everyone knows. It is just so obvious.

  5. Stories of attentional mishaps abound. I am reminded of the 1980’s tragedy when mid performance, a member of the Butoh troupe Sankai Juku, fell to his death. The news report at the time: Seems the performer failed to tie his rope in a proper manner before the performance One wonders now what took his attention from the pre performance prep?

    That said, Dr. Van Hecke raises an important issue that goes to the heart of encouraging a freshness in thinking, be it in business, education, or performance training (art, sport, or otherwise). Curiously enough, Van Hecke resurrects questions raised by visionaries in the human potential movement who banked on a mix of Zen and sensory awareness training to usher people out of the cognitive fog of “autopilot.” At that time, and as shown today in cognitive neuroscience studies of Zen and Mindfulness practice, teachers were fond of pointing out that “attention” and where we place it, is powerfully implicated in “how and when the world appears to us,” as Alva Noe might say.

    As one who is intellectually and professionally invested in the discussion of attention, my question here: Can we agree on a rigorous scientific definition of attentional autopilot, e.g., our heart beat is regulated by the “auto-pilot” operation of our autonomic nervous system.

  6. Glad to see Madeleine’s book is triggering such an interesting discussion! I enjoyed the thought-provoking “What if” questions the most, to help us identify and challenge hidden premises and assumptions. Let me try and replicate the model to continue the dialogue 🙂

    Jon: what if our metacognition was indeed based on probabilistic thinking (also called pattern recognition) and enabled self-monitoring of “deviance” (which is how our attention works)? the question then becomes how we can accelerate/ build and refine that metacognition while retaining flexibility.

    Jenny: what if what you discuss is the difference between being “thoughtful” and “mindful”?

    David: what if we stop talking about “right brain” and “left brain” as if they were separate entities, and instead discussed the role of the prefrontal cortext as the”conductor of the orchestra”? (including identifying threats and how to deal with them productively?)

    Keith: what if the book is not based on the idea of the autopilot? (and what if your reaction is based on your own autopilot)?

    M.A.: what if autopilot was everything except “cognitive”? and what if measuring “autopilot” requires brain-based measures beyond heart rate variability or similar traditional ANS-based ones?

    Finally, what if I just say, Happy Thanksgiving! have a great long weekend, and talk to you soon.

  7. Keith says:

    Alvaro:

    It seems to me, based upon the article and product description of the book on Amazon, that the book is based largely upon the idea of autopilot. I haven’t read the book, and so I could very well be wrong, I admit this readily.

    Although, the idea that I was mislead by my own autopilot to thinking that the book was based primarily on the idea of being on autopilot is humbling and hilarious! The possibility hadn’t occurred to me in that form and I thank you for it!

    It does seem to me that the book is based upon the idea of autopilot with a thrust toward taking advantage of the mental state. I wouldn’t have taken issue with this book in particular if not for the constant parade of mind books that address only the most obvious of mental phenomena in the most mundane ways, and at length. It’s a personal frustration with all of the books that I have ever spent time reading that have disappointed me in this fashion.

  8. Alvaro great questions! I’ve yet to read Van Hecke’s book so I’ll refrain from
    critical comment. However the idea of setting up testing protocols sounds like an exciting proposition. And yes, the ANS model is a point of departure but not necessarily the model. From the short article I gather future study points to looking at the related networks of habit which involve “muscle memory” as dancers are prone to say. I suspect studies that address attention coupled with action, from isolated to flow states might prove useful.

    Grateful for the dialogue!

    M A

  9. One of the reasons that this whole discussion of autopilot is interesting to me is that autopilot turns out to be a more complex phenomenon than people realized. For example, people would sometimes talk about being on autopilot as if it were always a bad thing, labeling it “mindless” behavior. Others would talk about how thinking more deliberatively can sometimes lead to poorer decisions than following one’s gut instincts – in this case, our intuitive non-thinking “mindless” responses are seen as something superior. In a different example, artists often appear to function in a state of “flow” which could be thought of as “mindless” in the sense in this state the artist is not consciously making decisions about what brush stroke to make next, or what musical phrase to create next. In The Brain Advantage we have tried to tease apart some of the differences between being on automatic pilot, carrying out habitual actions and some of these other states of mind, and to explore how we can take advantage of the positive aspects of both autopilot, and conscious deliberation, as well as of intuitive and more analytic thinking.

    As Alvaro’s comment suggested, this is only one of many issues that recent brain research sheds light on and that we treat in The Brain Advantage. Some of the most intriguing research has to do with issues such as how we decide whom to trust, and how we understand the emotions and intentions of others – issues that are very relevant to leadership. If you’d like to get more of a sense of some of the others, we have a couple of additional excerpts from the book on our web site – http://www.thebrainadvantage.com –
    It’s been a real treat to read people’s response to the Sharp Brains excerpt.

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