In one of the many college classes I spent mostly spacing out, my professor asked if anyone had ever heard of McCarthyism. The question was so easy that even my half-conscious, hungover brain recognized I knew the answer. That said, I wasn’t awake enough to remember to raise my hand, and I instinctually started clapping for McCarthyism instead.
In that moment, I learned two harsh lessons: 1) a round of applause is very hard to cover up; and 2) autopilot mode is embarrassingly real.
Going on autopilot mode is a well researched neurological phenomenon in which the default network of the brain is activated. Scientists believe it’s meant to help with “internal mental-state processes, such as self-referential processing, interoception, autobiographical memory retrieval or imagining future.” But it also makes most of us look like complete idiots.
For instance, when more than 13,000 redditors shared their dumbest autopilot experiences, the top answers ranged from dunking a friend’s phone into a full beer, putting a banana in the dishwasher before running it and accidentally stealing someone’s car from a gas station because it looked similar to theirs. (The vehicle was returned to its rightful owner.)
The feeling of coming out of this trance is astutely described in a John Mulaney bit, sampled in a number of TikTok videos, about driving for 25 minutes before realizing you’ve been speeding — and then hoping you didn’t run any red lights.
What Mulaney is describing sounds similar to dissociation, an out-of-body feeling typically in response to stress, during which we lose a sense of time and space. However, according to psychotherapist Brent Metcalf, autopilot mode is sort of the inverse of that. Instead of our brains shutting down in response to something that’s too overwhelming to process, we’re doing something that’s so habitual and low stress that our brain takes a break.
It isn’t harmful — except maybe to that banana you put in the dishwasher — and not something you should worry about fixing. In fact, experts believe that our brains are going to do it whether we like it or not. Psychologist Steve Ayan explains that this is how “the predictive mind” theory in neuroscience plays out. Our brains engage in a certain level of unconscious and automatic processing, and we’re always learning and improving on snap judgments without realizing it.
By contrast, conscious processing only kicks in when these predictions fail. “That is, we become conscious of circumstances when they merit our attention,” Ayan noted in Scientific American. “This automaticity enables us to function smoothly in the world, and becoming conscious when predictions fail enables us to avoid the pitfalls of automatic processing and adjust to changes in our environment.”
Despite my professor’s assumption that I was stoned out of my skull, slipping into autopilot mode is entirely normal. And as long as we’re not accidentally stealing cars, we may as well clap for all the awkwardness that comes with it.