Are we conscious when driving?


Or are we zombies?

Frequently, perhaps  most of the time, I feel I drive on “autopilot”. That is, I drive without awareness of driving. This is especially true when driving along highly familiar routes, such as my 1-hour commute from NJ to Brooklyn. While driving, my clear conscious experience is typically on something else: perhaps what’s on the radio, perhaps a problem at work, or a personal relationship. Clearly, however, my sensory motor system is working. I’m steering, turning, responding to other cars, etc. Others might suggest that I’m “multitasking”, switching between 2 conscious modes, but I don’t feel that’s the case. 
So, I argue, there are two streams of brain processing: what I’m consciously “thinking” about —call that stream A. And the autopilot driving stream, call that stream B.

I frequently find that my memory for stream B (driving) is very poor. If suddenly I pay attention to stream B, perhaps there’s an urgent situation, Then streams A and B fuse. Typically, my memory for previous events in stream B is extremely poor. Existent, but poor.

Another situation; there’s a detour sign, forcing me off of my familiar route. Here is what I do. First, ask “where am I?”. I struggle to identify my location, and place it on a map-like representation of my route. This is usually difficult. During autopilot (stream B), maps aren’t involved. If not maps, what? Most likely a stimulus-response chain1.When (and if) I can generate my location on a map, I can try to chart an optimal route. This is all stream A.

So, what is stream B, the autopilot driving stream? I propose it’s a form of integrated sensory motor processing that that is not conscious2. It’s characteristically present during locomotion along familiar routes, although interesting to discover other stream B situations. It’s a model-free, context-free, representation-free sensory-motor chain. It has a number of interesting features, among them is weak access to episodic memory. I’d also argue that it’s a continuous stream, unlike consciousness, which is, I feel model-based and chunked. Also, being sensory-motor, its restricted to the immediate present. My guess is that stream B is closely linked to dorsal stream processing and locomotion. Things like optic flow play a major role.

Almost everyone knows about “autopilot” thinking. Why is this not an important concept, distinct from conscious experience? I suggest that the confusion is that stream A and stream B can merge. I can be aware of my driving, think of alternatives, think of where I am on the map. Since only stream A has ready storage in episodic memory or future planning, and stream B can incorporate into steam A, this leads to the notion that stream B is part of stream A. That is stream B, as exemplified in autopilot driving3, is part of consciousness. In my opinion, more interesting to explore stream B’s separate and characteristic properties.

1 Perhaps akin to what O’Keefe and Nadel call “taxon” navigation (as opposed to map-like “locale” navigation supported by the hippocampal mapping system).

2 “consciousness” is just a word; one might call stream b “flow” or a form of consciousness; I’ll leave it as “stream b” for now.

3 Walking is a second archetype of stream b. Thinking of walking along a familiar path through the woods while day dreaming, thinking about something else. Stream b is the flow of information that guides the specific direction you head and the steps you take, the moment-by-moment accommodations to irregularities along the route. Again, optic flow is a major set of sensory cues. The “affordances” described by JJ Gibson present the very limited number possible paths and choices, with stream b making the decisions (as long as they are easy). A feature of stream b processing is that it is effortless. There is no feeling of force or strain. If the path becomes very steep, and conscious effort is needed to proceed, streams a and b fuse.


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