I’m currently in Europe on a family vacation. We’ve been here 3 days now and in that time I’ve driven almost 1000 kilometers (about 600 miles) on the highways and byways of France. We’re in the Rhone Alpes section of France, living in a 200 year old converted barn literally in the shadow of Mont Blanc. So far, it’s been a wonderful experience, with us exchanging homes with a French family and living more like the locals do. In the month we’re spending in France and Italy, only a week of that will be spent in traditional hotels.
Stranger in a strange land
While this type of vacation is far more interesting to us than a more typical version, it does come with its challenges. One of these has been navigating around. At home I can cruise around town on autopilot. Here, even a trip to the local grocery store is a mental challenge of daunting proportions. The roads are impossibly narrow and twisting, everyone drives as if their lives depend on shaving 28 seconds off their best time getting from their origin to their destination, and I don’t know where the hell I’m going, even with the assistance of the best pocket GPS software available. I get mentally exhausted every time I get behind the wheel.
In the last column, I looked at how we navigate and some of the interesting differences between the mental processes involved in that task in both men and women. Today, I’d like to explore why I can find it such a challenge to navigate in an unfamiliar environment, and why you can often get home after work and really not remember the drive at all.
Backseat drivers not welcome
I consider myself a pretty capable and relatively unflappable individual. I don’t often get flustered. But when I’m driving through an unfamiliar city, my two daughters know enough to become absolutely silent in the back seat. And as much as my wife yearns to provide advice, she’s learned that in this case, quiet support is the only acceptable contribution. It’s become a fundamental plank in the success of our two decade long relationship. I have to say that this is one of the most challenging things I do in my life. Why is navigating uncharted waters, or for that matter, the roundabouts of France, such a daunting challenge?
When we’re in an unfamiliar environment, we constantly scan for clues to tell us where to go. And when we pile this on top of the not insignificant demands of operating a mobile chunk of metal weighing in at a few thousand pounds, we can quickly reach cognitive overload. This is a perfect example of the human mind not behaving as it was evolved to do.
Our cognitive short cuts
Much of the human hardware series had dealt with how we create cognitive short cuts to lessen the processing demand on our brains. Humans are somewhat unique in that our minds work at two levels. There is the instinctual, habitual mind, and there is the rational, intellectual mind. But these are not really two distinct parts, but rather interlocking pieces in a rather wonderful and complex mechanism. Today I’ll look at how this mechanism helps us navigate our world.
Think back to when you first learned to drive a car. Every single aspect took your concentration. I remember being obsessed with setting a point of reference on the front hood of the car to know if I was still on the road or veering too close to the ditch. When you first learned how to drive, your rational brain was doing all the heavy lifting, and the habitual brain was sitting in the background, appearing to loaf off and just tag along for the ride. But in actual fact, our limbic structures (the older core of the brain) weren’t catching a free ride, they were just waiting to be trained.
Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes habits
As time progressed, you stopped thinking about all the little physical things you had to do to propel your car forward and now driving requires almost no cognitive effort on your part. I find driving relaxing because I can cruise along and let my mind wander over the many other things I have to think about. The time spent in our cars is not spent thinking about how to shift gears or keep the car on the road. If we’re on a familiar route, we don’t even think about how to navigate from point A to B. This is our time to think about the client who just doesn’t get it, the co-worker who’s showing increasingly frequent signs of idiocy, or our next vacation to somewhere tropical. Over time, our brain has learned to pass along the details of driving to the habitual part of our brain, freeing up our executive mind for other things.
But if we disrupt our environment, suddenly even things we took for granted change and our executive mind has to step back in. Hence the mental exhaustion that comes from driving an unfamiliar rental car in unfamiliar territory. After 30 years of shifting gears without thinking about it, I’m suddenly stalling my car in intersections while my family sits, silently terrified, watching an angry French motorist bear down on us. What happened? Well, as wonderful as the limbic structures can be at taking over routine tasks, they don’t deal well with change. And this points out one significant and vitally important difference between the two mechanisms of our mind. The executive brain is incredibly nimble and elastic. We, of all organisms, are best able to adapt to our environment and deal with change. But this elasticity comes at a price. The executive mind is not a multi-tasker. Focus of executive function is a never-ending set of trade offs: one task at a time is the rule. And it’s this cascading series of trade offs that taxes our brains. We’re trying to pay attention to too many things at once and something has to give. Once again, our limbic structures give up and pass everything back to our executive minds, which suddenly feels itself overloaded. Our limbic system (which I’ve also referred to as our sub-cortical brain) can easily handle multiple tasks, but only if we’ve done them over and over in the past. We call them habits and we can gain some more insight by looking at the classic psychological cliché: mice in a maze.
Of mice and mazes
Ann Graybiel, a professor at MIT, focused her attention on one particular part of the limbic system, the basal ganglia. And what she found when working with mice was rather fascinating. When navigating a maze for the first time, the basal ganglia was constantly firing (Graybiel tracked activity through electrodes implanted in the brain, so she knew when neurons were firing) but as the mouse began to master the maze, the basal ganglia became quiet, only firing at the beginning and end of the maze. It seemed that our basal ganglia became a sort of recording device, recording “chunks” of repeated behavior so we could operate on autopilot. When our scanned environment cues indicated that we were entering familiar territory, the basal ganglia switched the task off to the habitual part of our brain, turning off executive function. If something in the environment changed (as when Graybiel changed the maze course), the basal ganglia suddenly fired up, turning off the autopilot and again focusing executive function on the new challenge.
So, when you climb into the car after work, ready for your drive home, you’re in an environment that reeks of familiarity. The basal ganglia receives all the cues it needs to switch on the autopilot, as you play out this “chunk” of recorded behavior. Literally, you’ll be home before you “know” it. But if suddenly there’s a detour on the way, the basal ganglia fires up again, calling on the full but singular power of our executive mind.
Needless to say, my basal ganglia has been on overdrive in the past few days, as everything about my environment is unfamiliar. This likely explains why most of us like to visit unfamiliar places, but not too unfamiliar. As we visit new cultures and countries, it’s comforting to keep a “bubble” of familiarity around us. I remember talking to a friend about his recent trip to India. He had gone with a friend of his, who was Indian, and he stayed with the friend’s family while there. When I asked how he enjoyed India, he looked at me blankly. Thinking he hadn’t heard my question, I repeated it. He said, “Oh, I heard you. I’m just not sure how to answer. I was assaulted by the culture, it was too much to absorb. It might have been different if I could have retreated to a western hotel every night, just to get my bearings. But I was surrounded by it and it was overwhelming.” Like mine, his basal ganglia was working overtime.
In the next Just Behave, we’ll take this understanding of habitual behavior and look at how it can be very relevant to our online search experience.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.