Autopilot: The case of the wandering mind

Autopilot – do we live ‘on it’ or are we present with ourselves?

Autopilot: The case of the wandering mind

The flight was a short one. At 9.18pm Flight 3407 took off. By 10.06pm the plane had dropped below 10,000 feet.

According to the flight safety guidelines all conversations from that point onward are supposed to be essential to the flight. The pilots were chatting and exchanging trivial stories about ears and dreaming of the hotel rooms that awaited them. As the plane lost altitude, it continued to reduce speed. At 10.16pm the plane’s safety alert system kicked in. “Jesus,” the Captain said. Alarmed and panicked he pulled the lever towards him instead of pushing it away. Seventeen seconds later the plane went down, killing all 49 people on board.

The term autopilot generally refers to a device that steers a ship, plane or vehicle by itself. In this case Flight 3407’s automated aviation system didn’t fail, but those responsible for operating it got distracted. Their minds were elsewhere and the consequences were huge. The official flight report attributed the crew’s ‘lack of alertness’ as the cause of the navigational error. Nothing had failed, the crew had simply neglected to pay attention and monitor the controls.

au′tomat′ic pi′lot: a cognitive state in which you act without self-awareness

The consequences of a pilot going on autopilot and not being consciously present with what he or she is doing are obvious, but is this pastime of checking out also having more of an effect on us than we may care to realise?

Psychologists Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) discovered people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing, and this mind wandering typically makes them unhappy. They found that the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at a cost.[1] These results are staggering, and yet it is highly likely that even more of our waking hours are spent doing one thing while thinking about something else.

What this study does reveal is that a great deal of the time, people are not really there. Their body is there, but their mind is elsewhere.

If we are having a conversation for example, we can all feel the moment the person we are speaking to has zoned out, checked out and all but physically left the scene. However, whether we notice this depends on whether we are actually there too, which means paying attention and being aware of what is going on.

Yes, the curious case of the wandering mind is happening constantly right before our eyes. Essentially we could say that mind wandering has become a national pastime. Is this because mind wandering is something we can secretly do in the so-called privacy of our own mind?

That we have the saying ‘they are a million miles away’ refers to the fact that we do know this is going on.

We have so many examples of what happens when we are not really there and the mind is off elsewhere. Have you have ever forgotten where you parked your car in a car park? This means that at the moment you parked your car and walked off you weren’t really there. Hey, let’s be honest, 'losing a car??' Now this should be enough to make us stop and ask the question, “What on earth just happened?”

Do we realise we are even making this choice – or have we become so accustomed to this state of unawareness or autopilot that we no longer even question it?

Every day we are repeating tasks, activities or movements that we have done before. We generally go about our daily routine in a similar manner, however the more automatic a procedure or task becomes, or the more comfortable we become with it, it seems the less conscious attention we feel we need to pay it. We become complacent. On a deeper level it suggests that a level of responsibility for the quality in which we do things has been abdicated or even abandoned. Little research has been conducted on the effects of autopilot but it is worth considering what this is actually doing to us – physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically.

“I have been an air traffic controller for 16 years, the last 5 doing the job with an appreciation of conscious presence. There is a vast difference between my early years in the job and now. I have learnt how draining multi-tasking is. A controller's ability to hold a conversation with their colleagues, whilst talking to pilots and keeping up with changes on the computer screen concurrently, has been heralded as something to strive for. You are seen as very capable to be able to work in this way, but the truth is I have found this multi-tasking or autopilot behaviour to be extremely draining.

“The constant mental stimulation is exhausting.”

This job requires a high degree of attention to detail and focus. Going on autopilot means it's easy to forget what I've told a pilot and what a pilot has just read back to me, creating a potentially disastrous safety issue. Most controllers work this way, on autopilot – being constantly drained. Perhaps this would explain why there is always a bucket of chocolate and lollies at our consoles for whenever we need a sugar hit. When I worked in this way, I would need to sleep at least 9 to 10 hours every night in order to cope, thinking this amount of sleep was just my body's norm – my genetic makeup.

Since I decided to work with more presence, the quality of my work has changed dramatically. While giving up autopilot mode has meant I engage in less of the conversations around me, my ability to handle the workload has significantly improved and I am able to deal with situations – high volumes of traffic and emergency situations – more readily, without the nervousness or anxiousness that used to see me reaching for chocolate, needing to lie down during breaks or sleeping for hours and hours. There is a quality and presence to my voice that is now felt by pilots on the other end of the line, a trustworthiness that is so needed in my job. To work in a job which is known for being one of the most stressful in the world, without feeling this stress, I can attribute to living with a connection to myself, my body and with conscious presence, learned through the teachings of Serge Benhayon and the Way of the Livingness – particularly and very practically so, through the modality of Esoteric Yoga.

When we bring more of ourselves to our work and anything we are engaged in through a connection to ourselves and being in conscious presence with the task at hand, there is less exhaustion and much more appreciation of the quality and value we bring to all that we do.

A question we can all ask ourselves is “What percentage of our day are we actually choosing to be fully consciously present?”

Recognising that a level of un-awareness is going on for us all is key. This brings to our attention the choices we are making and the care and responsibility we are, or are not taking, to live in a state of conscious presence and self-awareness.


  • [1]

    Killingsworth, M.A. & Gilbert, D.T. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330, 932.

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Conscious presenceLifestyleYoga

  • By Vicky Geary, B.Bus (Accountancy), Dip.Yoga Teaching, Dip. Training & Assessment, Grad Dip. Childhood & Youth Studies

    Vicky has been working in private and public colleges in Australia for over 15 years and shares body awareness education with adults and young people. She combines learning and technology to make programs accessible and relatable to life.

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