On September 11, truck driver Normand Lavoie was sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of causing the death of three high school boys after he admitted that he 'zoned out' while driving through a construction zone in May 2015 and smashing into their stopped car. Lavoie also injured a flagperson who still is not well enough to return to work.
The 41-year old Winnipeg driver told police that he was in "la la land … I'm there behind the wheel but I'm not." He added that he was on "auto pilot" because of the flat Saskatchewan landscape. There was no evidence of violating Hours of Service rules, drug or alcohol use.
What many drivers call 'zoning out' is a phenomenon known in scientific circles as 'mind wandering,' and contrary to what many truckers believe, it may not be relieved by listening to the radio, singing or any other activity. Moreover, it can occur during a monotonous task, such as driving on a dark, empty highway, or during an engaging activity such as watching an exciting movie or reading a suspenseful book.
We spoke with Jonathan Schooler, PhD., who studies mind wandering at the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara. Following is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
What causes peoples' minds to wander?
It's the brain's default state. Research suggests that people mind-wander 25 to 50 percent of the time. It's what the mind does. When the current situation is not that stimulating, people wander off to greener pastures to more interesting things.
Does mind wandering cause crashes?
That research suggests that mind-wandering definitely is a major cause of accidents. In studies, researchers went to emergency rooms where people just had accidents. They interviewed people who had either been the victim or the cause of the accident [according to insurance company findings] and compared the two. The people who were the cause of accidents were much more likely to have been mind-wandering [at the time of the crash].
Can you prevent mind wandering by listening to the radio while you're driving?
With respect to the impact of listening to a radio, it's not clear whether or not that would necessarily help. Listening to the radio – particularly listening closely to content – could be distracting in and of itself, in much the same way that talking on a cell phone could be.
Is there any way to prevent mind wandering?
The best way to prevent mind wandering is to know when you're doing it. The technique that seems to be the most well-documented for aiding with mind-wandering is meditation. Not while driving, of course. What practicing meditation does is allow you to sharpen control of your attention to be better able to direct it where you want to, and also be better able to notice when your attention has drifted. I would encourage drivers during their breaks, and when they're done for the day, or maybe even first thing in the morning, to take ten minutes and practice meditation. It also has lots of other remarkable benefits, including reduced stress and increased wellbeing.
There's a number of apps available. One is called Headspace, which seems very good. Essentially what mediation entails is just using the breath as the center of focus – there are other techniques as well – and practicing trying to hold one's attention on the breath. When it drifts off, which it does, of course, you bring it back. This develops an attunement of one's attention and an ability to stay more focused.
Is mind wandering the same as daydreaming?
The field has not fully settled on a distinct vocabulary for these two terms. The way I look at it is that mind-wandering is when you have a task set in front of you, say driving, and then your mind drifts away from that primary task. Whereas with daydreaming oftentimes there's no task at all. For example, you're just sitting in a chair, staring out the window. There's nothing else you're trying to do. Mind-wandering, from my perspective, tends to be more the situation where there's something else you're intending to do and your mind has drifted away from that intended task.
Is there a relationship between the task that you're doing and mind-wandering? If I'm driving a long distance and the road is boring, there's nothing to see, my mind could wander. On the other hand, I could be reading a very exciting book, and my mind will still wander. Can you explain that?
In general, when you're involved in a more engaging activity, the mind will wander less. So while it's true that your mind can wander when you're reading an exciting book and when you're on a boring drive, you're more likely to mind-wander on the boring drive. That said, one of the reasons why the exciting book can still make you mind-wander is because it's provocative, and causes ideas to pop into your mind. Then you get grabbed by those ideas.
The trick is to try to catch yourself mind-wandering when you're reading, and then pause and follow through with the thought. It's what we call meta-awareness, which is noticing the mind wandering. If you can do that, then you can think through that interesting thought and get back to the reading. If you don't notice that your mind is wandering – and I'm sure you've had this experience – your eyes just continue moving across the page, and you lose all track of the content.
That can happen as you drive. You don't remember driving the last three miles.
Is there a relationship between fatigue and mind-wandering? Are you more apt to have a mind wander if you're tired?
There is some evidence that being tired can influence mind-wandering, but it's surprisingly less consistent than you might expect. And here's another thing which is surprising. In general, as people get older, they mind-wander less. You might think that as people get older, their executive function in general declines, and mind-wandering is oftentimes considered a failure of executive function. So why do people mind-wander less when they get older? It's because they have fewer resources to wander off to. I would predict – although I don't know this for sure, but this would follow from what I know – the cost of mind-wandering when someone is sleep-deprived will be much greater than the cost of mind-wandering when someone is alert. Because the resources that one has to mind-wander are less good, so it's going to be even more problematic if you do mind-wander when you're tired.
Is there a positive side to mind-wandering?
We find that a substantial proportion of people's creative ideas happen while mind-wandering. In particular, it seems to be ideas that involve overcoming some sort of impasse. If you're stumped on a problem, mind-wandering seems to be a way to come up with fresh perspectives.