What is highway hypnosis?
Think of a time when you have arrived at a destination, and you haven’t remembered how you got there. Of course, you know you drove there, you can even recall the exact route, but you can’t remember exactly doing the drive. This is highway hypnosis or white line fever as it used to be known. It is a trance-like state in which you drive in a regular and safe manner but have no recollection of having made the journey. Many drivers experience highway hypnosis and zone out of their trip.
The idea was first introduced in a 1921 New York article where the term “road hypnotism” was first coined. “Highway hypnosis” was introduced by G.W Williams. Researchers in the 1920’s observed motorists appearing to fall asleep with their eyes open yet continue to drive their cars as if they were awake. Psychologists in the ’50s suggested that unexplained car accidents might be the fault of drivers under highway hypnosis. Thankfully, modern studies have suggested a difference between driving while fatigued and autopilot driving.
What is the difference?
Highway hypnosis is an example of automaticity. This is the ability to perform actions without conscious thinking. We all perform daily tasks using this method such as walking, writing, riding a bike and getting dressed. These are all skills we have learned and practised to such an extent that we do not need to think of each step as we perform them. This can be applied to driving. Many people drive and make mental plans/lists. They can because their stream of consciousness is directed at the task that requires the most thought or brainpower. This causes partial or complete amnesia of the driven journey can occur.
While this may seem hazardous, automaticity can be superior to attentive driving, especially for professional or specialist drivers. Known as the Centipede effect after the fable of the centipede’s dilemma or Humphrey’s law.
In the fable, a centipede walks down a path until it is approached. It was asked how it moves with so many feet. As the centipede thought about it, its feet became entangled.
Humphrey described it as “No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention on the routine work. If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled.”
Applied to the context of driving, focusing too harshly on the actions being performed can worsen the skill.
- A person genuinely experiencing highway hypnosis automatically scans their surroundings for threats and potential dangers and alerts the brain to these.
- A tired driver experiences tunnel vision and reduced awareness of their surroundings.
The difference between the two is that it is possible to experience automaticity while awake while driving when tired can lead to falling asleep.
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