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.thumbnail Madeleine 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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  1. Jon Peltier on November 22, 2009 at 7:54

    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. Jenny Brockis on November 22, 2009 at 6:27

    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 on November 23, 2009 at 2:58

    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 on November 23, 2009 at 8:22

    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. Dr. M. A. Greenstein on November 24, 2009 at 7:48

    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. Alvaro Fernandez on November 25, 2009 at 1:14

    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 on November 28, 2009 at 3:17


    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. Dr M A Greenstein on November 30, 2009 at 8:41

    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. Madeleine Van Hecke on December 1, 2009 at 9:27

    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 – –
    It’s been a real treat to read people’s response to the Sharp Brains excerpt.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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