It happens to all of us. You’re driving home from school or work, your mind drifts to an awkward conversation with a coworker or what you need to pick up for dinner. Before you know it, miles and minutes vanish without a trace. Did you teleport? Drive into a wormhole? Not quite—you experienced a phenomenon commonly known as highway hypnosis.
What is highway hypnosis, exactly? The answer is slightly more complicated than it may seem at first glance. It has to do with our brain’s exceptional ability to split attention between our internal monologue and external stimuli.
What is highway hypnosis?
Highway hypnosis is the experience of driving long distances without any memory or awareness of the experience. It is also known as automatic driving or white line fever. People experiencing highway hypnosis can respond to traffic prompts and events in an appropriate, expected fashion. Remarkably, they do this despite almost no conscious awareness of doing so.
Highway hypnosis vs. drowsy driving
There is a key difference between highway hypnosis and a similar but distinct phenomenon called drowsy driving. Highway hypnosis is not necessarily correlated with drowsiness, which can significantly inhibit your reaction time and even lead to lost moments when you’re not fully conscious at the wheel.
While there’s no clear consensus about highway hypnosis, it’s universally acknowledged that driving while drowsy is dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 633 fatalities stemming from drowsy driving-related crashes in 2020, and driving drowsy accounts for an average of more than 100,000 collisions a year.
By contrast, highway hypnosis is an example of automaticity, or our ability to do things we’ve done countless times before with little to no input from our conscious mind. Other examples include typing on a keyboard or riding a bike. These practiced activities are commonly grouped under the umbrella term “muscle memory.”
What causes highway hypnosis?
What’s going on in our brains when we zone out? Why does it happen sometimes but not others? Turns out it comes down to a couple of main factors.
Mundane roads and familiarity
A familiar route is much more likely to induce highway hypnosis than a new or unfamiliar one. You’ll notice it when a detour or incident on the road immediately snaps you out of the fugue-like lull associated with automatic driving. And it’s not just familiarity: A 2003 study from the University of Montreal showed that drivers on more visually stimulating roads were less likely to exhibit symptoms of fatigue.
There’s also evidence the actual mechanics of your vision play a role in inducing highway hypnosis. A paper published in 2004 indicates that driving for prolonged periods along roads that provide little visual stimulation causes our brains to begin to rely less on actual retinal information. Instead, they rely more on our predictions (extra-retinal feedback) or what we expect to see. This in turn contributes to the trance state associated with highway hypnosis as our conscious mind is drawn to focus more on internal rather than external activity.
Is highway hypnosis dangerous?
There’s some debate around whether or not highway hypnosis is a dangerous condition. Some argue that operating a motor vehicle without your full conscious attention is always a risk. Others, such as psychologist George Humphrey, argue that consciously performing a task that is often performed automatically can actually impair performance.
In his book “The Story of Man’s Mind,” Humphrey references the fable of the centipede, in which another animal asks the centipede how all its legs work in unison. Contemplating the question, the centipede’s legs become jumbled and it trips over itself. Humphrey believes this is the effect of overthinking actions normally handled automatically. Applied to driving, the theory is that a sufficiently practiced driver will account for normal driving activity, like stopping at red lights or changing lanes. The conscious mind will snap into focus should any abnormal or emergency situations occur.
How to avoid highway hypnosis
Even if it may not be inherently dangerous, you probably don’t want to tempt fate by zoning out on a regular basis. If highway hypnosis is a frequent problem, you may want to seek medical attention. In the meantime, you can try the following.
Take a different route
Varying your route is a great way to keep your brain engaged with external stimuli and ensure you’re consciously making decisions as you drive. Find scenic detours or explore new neighborhoods as a part of your daily commute and you’re much more likely to stay focused and present.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive effects on focus and cognition that caffeine can impart. Grab an extra cup of coffee in the morning or pop an energy drink in your cup holder to stave off the mental drift associated with automatic driving.
Take a break from driving
An easy way to break up a long drive, especially an epic road trip, is to pull off and take a short break. Find a roadside attraction or rest stop or just pull in somewhere to grab a bite to eat, and you’re less likely to zone out on multi-hour journeys.
Change your environment
Another quick fix, especially for shorter trips, is to vary your environment as you drive. Turn up the radio, open your windows or crank the AC. The act itself will snap you back to the present and make you less likely to lose focus as you drive.
Singing along with your Spotify playlist, chatting with your passengers or seeing how many state license plates you can count on a long trip are great ways to not only keep yourself entertained but also to keep your brain focused on driving.
While highway hypnosis is considered by many to be a fairly benign side effect of driving familiar roads or long distances, drowsy driving is a very dangerous condition that should be avoided under any circumstances. And while the two aren’t necessarily correlated, taking steps to stay alert and focused behind the wheel is the best recipe for responsible driving.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you subconsciously drive?
Almost any activity sufficiently practiced and repeated can become a part of procedural memory, which means it can be performed with little to no conscious effort or attention. Driving is no exception.
How can I improve my driving concentration?
One of the most important tools for improving concentration while driving is eliminating distractions. Put your phone away, memorize directions ahead of time and save radio changes for when you are stopped.
Is driving good for your brain?
While learning any new skill can help improve cognition, a study from the University of Leicester demonstrated that driving for more than two hours a day can actually decrease IQ, particularly in middle-aged people.