Sometimes, navigating America's roadways becomes a test of patience, reflexes and mental fortitude. Other times, getting from A to B feels mindless — with gas in the tank and a foot on the pedal, you space out until you realize you've reached your destination. Driving and day dreaming might seem rare, but as it turns out most of us turn the key and tune out once in a while. At least that's what a new study on the subject reveals. Researchers from The University of Waikato in New Zealand found that people are most likely to let their thoughts drift on familiar roads when they're tired. And younger drivers report a higher frequency of cruising-while-daydreaming. But, while gripping the steering wheel in a spacey state certainly seems dangerous, we don't have direct evidence of a link between mind-wandering and crashing — yet.
When we let our minds wander or otherwise go on autopilot, we're handing over the reins to a little brain network called the Default Mode Network (or DMN). Previous research says mind-wandering happens all the livelong day, mostly during familiar, well-practiced tasks that demand little of our mental faculties. Increasingly, scientists have figured out that spacing out has benefits. DMN activity is thought to facilitate creative problem-solving by letting the mind make associations between experiences that would otherwise seem unrelated. (Need a concrete example? Think of the prototypical absent-minded professor known for seemingly abrupt Eureka moments.) But, when a task calls for focus, or otherwise requires flexing an executive-function muscle, mind wandering won't help you get 'er done.
Fleeting mental states are hard to measure. It's not like we can identify a mind-wanderer by their "MW face." So, attempts to study the phenomenon rely on self-report ("my mind started wandering on the subway, when the conductor apologized for train traffic ahead") or performance on attention-demanding tasks, the implication being that wandering minds aren't focusing. Researchers can also use neuroimaging tools (brain scans) to infer mind wandering from activity in certain neural networks. Still, these methods can't capture mind-wandering in a real-world context, such as during car rides. By contrast, the mortal sin of road safety — texting and driving — is an observable behavior. Then again, even if we could see mind-wandering in action, we'd run into another issue: As soon as someone recognizes their mind is wandering, it no longer is.
So, without a perfect way to study mind wandering, other researchers have found most success in self-report. The current study authors followed suit and collected data from 450 adults with varied demographic profiles. Participants filled out questionnaires to gauge their general tendency towards mindfulness, propensity towards lapses in memory, attention and motor control and driving histories (accidents, road rage). Participants also rated the degree to which their minds wandered in various driving scenarios, e.g., "on an urban or city route that I have driven many times" and "on a long drive when I am not following any traffic."
All participants reported spacing out behind the wheel at least once, and most admitted to engaging in the habit occasionally or often. Mind wandering was most common when people were tired and driving familiar cars on familiar urban and rural roads. Drivers most likely to report mind wandering were under 25 years old, were not mindful people and had a higher-than-average number of driving-related attention lapses and road violations.
Based on the study results, mind wandering happens least often when drivers are crunched for time and bearing down unknown roadways. This makes sense, intuitively: When we don't know where we're going, we tend to observe our surroundings more closely. Past research says older drivers are more crash-prone on account of reduced cognitive functioning, but mind wandering didn't increase with age in this study. Researchers surmised that older drivers may be less spacey because they go out of their way to compensate for cognitive limitations, perhaps by restricting when and under which conditions they drive. As a result, they only get in the car when they're primed to pay attention.
"Perhaps the most important contribution of this research is the finding that most people report mind wandering occasionally during everyday driving, on familiar roads," wrote study authors. "It is commonplace in the most common of places."
These results don't directly link accident-prone driving and spacing out. But, they do indirectly support the link through a statistic we've all heard: Most car accidents happen close to home, on the sorts of local roads where the study says motorists' minds wander. It's possible (though by no means proven) that accidents happen on local roads because drivers cease focusing and start daydreaming.