It can be easy to zone out when behind the wheel, particularly when rolling down a straight or otherwise uninteresting stretch of road. While the dangers of this behavior are obvious, a team of researchers has sought to understand just how commonplace it is, and by surveying and monitoring activity in the brains of road users, they believe they have some answers.
A team of researchers in from the US, including officials from the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, set up an experiment designed to quantify mind-wandering during driving. This meant hooking up volunteers to an electrophysiological monitoring system to detect changes in electrical activity in the brain. But because they couldn't slap these on actual drivers, they made do with a simulation instead.
That simulation was made to mimic the monotony of a day-to-day commute. For five consecutive days, subjects were hooked up to the monitors and then jumped into the driving simulator, completing two 20-minute drives along a straight and intentionally dull stretch of highway at a constant speed. Between those two trips, they were made to complete a written exam to replicate the mental exertion of a day's work.
At random times throughout, the subjects would hear a buzzer and be prompted by a tablet computer asking whether their mind had been wandering. If answering yes, they were asked whether or not they were aware that their mind had been wandering.
"We found that during simulated driving, people's minds wander a lot – some upwards of 70 percent of the time," says Carryl Baldwin, of George Mason University, who was involved in the study.
The team says that subjects were more likely to indulge in mind-wandering during the second trip, and that they were only aware of their mind-wandering 65 percent of the time. And by observing the electrical activity in the brain, they saw distinct changes in electrophysiological brain patterns when mind-wandering did occur.
"Mind wandering may be an essential part of human existence and unavoidable," says Baldwin. "It may be a way to restore the mind after a long day at the office. What we are not sure about yet, is how dangerous it is during driving. We need additional research to figure this out. In terms of improving safety in the future, one option could be autonomous transport systems, like self-driving cars, that allow people's minds to wander when it is safe to do so, but re-engage when they need to pay attention."
The team's research was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.