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Moving From Autopilot Towards Mindfulness


Have you ever been carrying on a conversation with a friend when you realize you have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about–let alone how you’re still talking? Or, maybe you’ve been driving when you blink and an entire hour goes by leaving you wondering where your mind went… and how your car is still intact? I could just be a bad friend, or a slacker driver, but I suspect I’m not alone. It’s likely that you’re zoned out a lot more often than you realize, and this isn’t without negative repercussions. In 2010, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert used a phone app to randomly record what 2,250 participants’ minds were focused on in a specific moment in relation to what they were doing and how they were feeling. They discovered that the average person spends about 47% of their day on “autopilot,” following automated behaviors while their thoughts wander from the task at hand. Equally intriguing, when the participants reported their mind wandering, they also reported being significantly less happy in that moment. It may be unsettling to realize that you aren’t consciously aware of your behavior for half of your day, and that generally the more time we spend directed by automated behaviors, the less happy we’re likely to feel (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010).

This unconscious program we find ourselves following so often consists of automatic processes that don’t require concerted effort or attention to carry out. Consider a time someone made you angry. If you’ve ever irrationally blurted something out and regretted it later, you’ve learned that automatic processes are initiated unintentionally, and often before you realize what you’ve done. This makes them difficult to prevent, and equally difficult to interrupt. While some processes, like breathing, are considered innately automatic, many processes, such as reading or driving, become automatic through repetition and practice. These processes become our habits; the more frequently we respond to a stimulus by thinking or acting in a specific way, the more likely we are to repeat the same pattern the next time we are in the same situation (Gardner, et al. 2012). Consider another time someone made you angry, but instead of instantly reacting, you maybe took a deep breath before responding. In this scenario, you engage in a controlled process, which allowed you to intentionally respond from a state of conscious awareness– it took thought and effort, but you may have felt better about the results.

Stroop task example

In 1935, John Stroop developed the Stroop task, an investigation of automatic processes in which participants were presented with an array of words that spell out colors incongruent to the color of the text. They were then asked to name the colors of the words, rather than read them. You can try it yourself. If you read the word despite intending to name the color, you would be in good company. You experienced Stroop interference, where the “more automatic” process of reading interfered with color naming. This task is so difficult because to color-name, you must hold back from reading the word for meaning, which is the opposite of what your brain is used to doing when it sees a written word.

Our brains automatize as many processes as possible to maximize efficiency. By minimizing cognitive energy spent on things that keep us alive, and things we’ve already learned, more can be spent on more challenging or unique tasks. This is one of the reasons we’re capable of learning new things throughout our entire lives. Let’s look at this present moment as an example: because you read the words on this blog automatically, you can put effort into learning this new information, and thinking about how you can integrate it into your life. 

So, automated thought patterns and actions are necessary, but there are repercussions to letting your unconscious mental program run unanalyzed. We’ve already seen that we are much less likely to feel happy when our mind strays from the task at hand. At an extreme, habitual negative thought patterns, emotional reactivity, and the accompanying feeling of lack of control are associated with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression (Keetan, et al 2008), and addiction (Forsyth, Parker, & Finlay, 2003). Our automatic processing is also behind implicit biases like age and race biases, as well as our tendency to stereotype other people. So, ignoring your unconscious mental program has repercussions that range from individual, to interpersonal, to societal.

Meditation cycle of awareness

This may leave you wondering, if you are not in control of your thoughts, decisions and actions for nearly half of your day, then who is? While your conscious self can choose how to respond to stimuli, your unconscious self can only react in accordance to your automatic processes. What if I told you that there is a way to nurture your conscious self in order to live a more intentional life? This is exactly what can be accomplished through meditation.

Meditation is an ancient practice with roots in Eastern Buddhist traditions. It has branched into many forms, all of which train the ability to engage a state of mindfulness into any moment of life. It usually involves stabilizing your focus on one thing such as your breath, or a sensation in your body, recognizing when distracting thoughts rise up, and then bringing your attention back to your focal point. While meditation has innumerable benefits and is now recognized as a treatment for mood, stress, and addiction-related disorders, we are going to explore how meditation relates to our automatic processes. In the 1960’s, psychiatrist Arthur Deikman was one of the first people to connect the manifold benefits of meditation to the agency it grants us over our subconscious. Deikman suggested that meditation could bring our autopilot activities back under conscious awareness, making them easier to inhibit, calling this liberating process “deautomatization.”

Since Deikman’s hypothesis, others have wondered if meditation could be a tool to reprogram our subconscious. In 2009, researchers Moore and Malinowski hypothesized that mindfulness meditation, in which you practice engaging your complete attention in the present moment, should shed awareness on processes that are otherwise carried out unconsciously, bringing them back under cognitive control. They also proposed that meditation facilitates deautomatization because it improves cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a function of your attentional control that allows you to consider things from multiple perspectives, and change your mind (Cañas, Quesada, Antolí, & Fajardo, 2003). It makes sense that someone who finds it easier to change their mind on something would find it easier to break free from their habitual patterns, and engage in new ones. 

Imagine the conscious you is a marionette directed by the puppeteer that is your unconscious. Meditation provides the scissors of mindfulness to cut these marionette strings.

To put this to the test, Moore and Malinowski gathered an experimental group of Buddhist meditators with at least 6 weeks of meditation experience, and a control group of non-meditators. These participants completed two tasks; one was the Stroop task, which tested their attentional control, and their ability to suppress automatic processes. They also completed a second task which evaluated their concentration, endurance, and ability to focus. When Moore and Malinowski compared the group’s performances, the meditators outperformed non-meditators on both tasks. These results speak clearly: meditation enhances attentional control and cognitive flexibility, making it easier to override automatic processes and respond to stimuli in a non-habitual way (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).

I hope you now see that meditation is a cool tool to fully inhabit your brain and live more deliberately. However, if you are as addicted to instant gratification as I am, the notion of meditating for 6 weeks before noticing results seems daunting. It seems researcher Heidi Wenk-Sormaz shared these concerns, as in 2005, she investigated whether 15 minutes of meditation was enough to enable deautomatization. Adult participants with no meditation experience were asked to complete the Stroop task before and after engaging in 15 minutes of meditative, focused breathing. To isolate meditation as the variable, rather than the repetition of the task, she had two control groups complete the Stroop task twice, but without meditating in-between. Consistent with Moore and Malinowski’s results, meditation greatly improved deautomatization. This study is particularly interesting because it shows that even with no prior meditation experience, you can begin to free your thoughts from automatic patterns after just 15 minutes of meditation (Wenk-Sormaz, 2005).

While there is no doubt that mindfulness can help you press pause on autopilot, can it also take you to new destinations? Wenk-Sormaz investigated this question with a category generation task. Participants were given a category such as “A natural earth formation,” and listed as many items in the category as possible, in the order that they came to mind. For instance, you might respond, mountain, valley, plateau, and so on. The experimental group of subjects completed this task prior to and after meditating for 20 minutes. Control groups did not meditate between completing the category tasks. In order to assess the typicality of the responses, or how habitually each group responded, the responses were compared to a norm from previous studies. The meditators showed they were able to think outside the box, as they were much better than the non-meditators at generating atypical (unique) responses when prompted to do so (Wenk-Sormaz, 2005). Meditation won’t hinder you from following your habits, but the added awareness lets you act non-habitually and more creatively if desired.

Let’s sum this up with a thought experiment: 

Imagine it’s 5pm and you’re finally writing a paper that is due tonight, when you hear a notification bell from your phone. So, you immediately pick it up and check it. The latest political news makes you irate, so you click on an elephant video to calm down. By the time you become aware of what you’ve done, it’s 6:00 pm. Oh no! You’re now so distracted and discouraged, it’s even harder to finish the paper….

In this scenario, the stimulus (notification) activated an automatic, and counter-productive, response (checking the phone). 

But wait– let’s rewind! This can go differently. Imagine you’ve been meditating and working on maintaining a mindful state throughout your day. Upon hearing a notification from your phone, you automatically reach out, but as your fingertips graze your phone, you become aware of what you’re doing. Recalling what happened the past times you checked your phone, you decide to finish your essay before checking that notification.

In this scenario, your awareness in the present moment came between the stimulus (notification) and the habitual response (checking your phone). Thanks to this positive feedback loop, the next time your technological siren sings to your subconscious, you’re less likely to succumb, and more likely to respond from a place of awareness. 

So, now that you have been made aware that your unconscious mental program directs nearly half of your day, will you use mindfulness to deautomatize– and become your own programmer? If you are interested in starting to meditate, this is a great place to begin. 

Works Cited:

Cañas, J. J., Quesada, J. F., Antolí, A., & Fajardo, I. (2003). Cognitive flexibility and adaptability to environmental changes in dynamic complex problem-solving tasks. Ergonomics, 46(5), 482–501.

Forsyth, J. P., Parker, J. D., & Finlay, C. G. (2003). Anxiety sensitivity, controllability, and experiential avoidance and their relation to drug of choice and addiction severity in a residential sample of substance- abusing veterans. Addictive Behaviors, 28, 851–870.

Gardner, Benjamin, et al. “Making Health Habitual: the Psychology of ‘Habit-Formation’ and General Practice.” The British Journal of General Practice : the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of General Practitioners, Dec. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/. 

Keeton, Courtney Pierce et al. “Sense of control predicts depressive and anxious symptoms across the transition to parenthood.” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) vol. 22,2 (2008): 212-21. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.2.212

Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert. “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Science, vol. 330, no. 6006, 12 Nov. 2010, p. 932. 

Moore , A. Malinowski , P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition, 18, 176-186.

Wenk-Sormaz, Heidi. “Meditation Can Reduce Habitual Responding.” Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, vol. 11, no. 2, Mar. 2005, pp. 42–58. 


1: https://www.reddit.com/r/memes/comments/czbbpd/just_going_to_log_off_for_a_while


3&5: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Liverpool-Mindfulness-Model_fig3_235402631

4: https://motto.za.net/ownership-of-purpose/

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