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How your "reptilian brain" affects your ability to commute safely

Traveling the same route to work, your kids' school or errands every day can become dull. You may feel like you know every building and road sign along the way, and paying attention to your commute can become quite difficult. You may find yourself slipping into bouts of intense boredom.

Some people traveling down familiar roads will experience a loss of time, where they arrive at their destination and can't quite recall how they got there. This happens because of a unique physiological response to boredom and routine in the human brain.

Generations of evolution have drastically improved the cognitive function of the human brain, but evolution has not removed all of the old or unwanted parts of the human body. Much like your appendix, which serves no function to modern humans, your lizard brain or reptilian brain is still embedded within your head and has the potential to cause issues behind the wheel.

Your reptilian brain helps with habits and processes

Neuroscientists, who are scientists that study the brain, recognize the basal ganglia and brainstem as the reptilian brain. In other words, this basic formation at the core of the brain that connects to the spinal column is much like what we see in animals with less evolved cognitive function.

However, the reptilian brain does do several important tasks for modern humans. It manages what we call procedural memory, which is your ability to perform repetitive tasks. It's why you can always ride a bike once you learn. It also controls habits. You may, for example, have a habit of always turning right on a certain street on your route home. You may not even think about it when you turn the blinker on because your reptile brain is the one calling the shots.

The ability of the reptile brain to take over certain tasks frees up your cognitive function for more important endeavors. Unfortunately, tasks such as driving can wind up relegated to the habit center of your brain as well, which could be a recipe for disaster.

Driving out of habit is like being on autopilot

There's a good chance that your reptilian brain takes over when you drive on routes that you know. While you can adjust your driving habits for weather or engage in a conversation because you don't have to fully focus on the task at hand, that may not necessarily be a good thing.

The ability to multitask is particularly dubious when you engage in a dangerous activity, such as driving. If you don't have your full attention on the task at hand, you could miss something happening in front of you or make a bad decision that could result in a motor vehicle collision. Distraction in any form is dangerous, but mental distraction is particularly dangerous.

If you allow yourself to drive on autopilot with your lizard brain running the show, you may increase your risk of getting into a crash because you won't be paying very close attention to what happens around you.

There are many tricks you can use to turn off your reptile brain while driving, such as taking a different route every time you drive instead of always taking the same path. The more novel the experience you have behind the wheel, the less likely it is that your lizard brain will take over the process of driving. If you find yourself wandering mentally, try to physically ground yourself in your body by paying attention to your hands and feet and focusing as much as possible on the road around you.

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DelVecchio & Miller, LLC

DelVecchio & Miller, LLC
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