Alex Naoumidis
Thursday, June 25, 2020

Highway Hypnosis: What is it and what does it tell us about ourselves?

Have you arrived home after a drive and not remembered the details of the drive? Almost everyone who drives has had this common experience, a phenomenon that has come to be called highway hypnosis.

Highway hypnosis naturally occurs when your attention is occupied with things other than your driving. It might be a song on the radio, a review of something significant that happened at work that day, or anything else that you get absorbed in while you’re driving your car.  What’s fascinating is what highway hypnosis reveals about our mind’s ability to focus attention internally on our thoughts yet still maintain an external awareness of driving conditions in order to still drive safely (1). The fact that we can process and respond to information on multiple levels simultaneously represent one of the most sophisticated aspects of human consciousness and is the subject of fascinating neuroscientific research.

The recognition of highway hypnosis as a phenomenon was first written about in a 1921 article, where the author described it as 'road hypnotism.' The term 'highway hypnosis' wasn’t coined until much later by G. W. Williams in 1963 (2). At first, it was thought that highway hypnosis might be the cause of unaccountable motor vehicle crashes. However, researchers now understand that highway hypnosis isn’t the chief concern; rather, drowsy driving is the greater concern, especially so in these days when too many people are sleep deprived in general.

Driving Safely on Automatic

The old metaphor of consciousness being the visible tip of the iceberg and the unconscious being everything beneath the surface has been modified as more has been learned about non-conscious information processing. Many studies of mental processes have highlighted that people can absorb and respond to information without really being aware of it. Some neuroscientists have gone as far as suggesting that a more accurate metaphor is to describe consciousness as a snowball on top of the tip of the iceberg. The fact that people can be responsive to environmental cues, a phenomenon that scientists call priming, becomes especially relevant in the study of hypnosis. Priming gives rise to so-called “automatic” or non-conscious responses. This is what makes it possible to drive a car safely even when preoccupied with other things. This is quite a different process than what occurs when someone is simply too fatigued to drive safely, a point the statistics bear out. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving contributes to over 100,000 crashes and 6,500 deaths a year in the US (3). When driving drowsy, your reaction time is slowed and you become cognitively impaired, less aware of dangers and other cars.

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Automaticity is a Gift

Although it may seem a bit scary to think about driving or doing other such things automatically, the reality is we do lots of things in our life automatically, mostly things we have significant experience and practice with. We ride our bikes without thinking about maintaining balance, we talk to a friend while walking, we read words fluidly or speak without planning each word ahead. The more we relegate routine actions to automatic behavior, the more we free our awareness up to pay attention to things that are more novel or complex. It is a distinct advantage evolutionarily to expand the number of things we can do on automatic if we are to continue to evolve higher and higher order capacities. It’s an important point, of course, that one can be on automatic for as long as conditions remain stable. In terms of highway hypnosis, you can be assured that as soon as your attention is needed because the car in front of you hit the brakes or an animal ran in front of your car, your moments of reverie will be over and you’ll respond readily. Keep in mind the distinction between driving on automatic and driving when fatigued.

How to avoid driving when drowsy

Here are 8 tips that can help you avoid drowsy driving:

  • Get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
  • Take a break every 90 minutes or when tired or and consider switching drivers if you're in the car with someone else who can drive.
  • Drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks. Caffeine blocks receptors in your brain from uptaking a sleep chemical called Adenosine (4), helping keep you awake and alert. Besides, if you drink more, well, there’s a good chance you’ll need to take a break from driving for another automatic function…
  • Take a different route. Paying less attention is more common when you're driving routes that you often take, so by taking a different route home it will force encourage you to be more aware of the new unfamiliar roads, cars and signs.
  • Drive during the day when possible. Driving at night can be a lot more monotonous and therefore easier for your brain to slip into autopilot. Driving in the day will likely keep you awake and more aware interesting surroundings.
  • Keep it cool. You're more awake and alert if the air inside the car is cooler, so keep the aircon on during the summer and try not to use too much of the heater during winter.
  • Sit up straight. Good posture can help keep you more alert and prevent you from drifting off.
  • Don't use cruise control. Cruise control can make it a lot more comfortable to drive but it can also give you more of an excuse to drift off and not focus on driving.

What is hypnosis?

Simply put, hypnosis is a highly focused, absorbed state of attention where you become more receptive to new ideas and perspectives. Hypnosis is known as an amplified learning state and can help you learn skills both consciously and unconsciously (automatically) more easily. Given how much of improving your health and well-being is based on learning new skills and perspectives, the focus and comfort of hypnosis to facilitate such learning is an especially helpful tool. The merits of hypnosis to enhance treatments for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and many other conditions is well documented in the scientific literature. The hypnosis sessions we provide at Mindset have great potential to be helpful to you.

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Our Sources

Mindset Health only uses high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed research, to support our articles. We work with experts to ensure our content is helpful, accurate and trustworthy.

1. Weiten, Wayne. Psychology Themes and Variations (6th ed.). Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning. p. 200. ISBN 0-534-59769-6.

2. Williams, G. W. (1963). Highway hypnosis: An hypothesis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 11(3), 143–151. Link

3. "Drowsy Driving". NHTSA. U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved 30 Jan 2020.

4. Ribeiro, J. and Sebastião, A. (2010). Caffeine and Adenosine. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 20(s1), pp.S3-S15.

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