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May 29th, 2018

Learning and attempting a new activity usually results in a heightened awareness.




Learning to drive a car, for example. The student, aware of the high stakes of a mistake is wide-eyed and looking everywhere.

Over time, with experience and familiarity, this behavior changes. Until the lazy complacent driver is comfortable eating a bagel while yelling at someone on one phone, texting on another, down shifting through a left turn and cursing the fates that they did not have enough time to lean out the window and berate another driver for failing to follow their version of the rules.




We don’t even have to go this far. It’s only to point out that awareness decreases.


The student driver is unsure of what aspects of the environment are important, so the student driver is attempting to pay attention to everything. Learning a skill like driving has a lot to do with figuring out what in the immediate environment is important, potentially important, and what things are not important at all.

The process of learning how to drive invariably results in: figuring out what to ignore.





Our vigilance as drivers plummets over time as we are lulled into a survivor’s bias form of complacency.

And yet still: car accidents are a substantial killer of our species.

How many accidents might have been avoided if everyone involved had maintained the hyper awareness that the student driver has?

Of course this just isn’t possible. Doing something regularly breeds complacency, whether it be a job, driving. In some sense our minds seem programed to get bored as fast as possible. 




Emotion is a form of autopilot. And just like the complacent, distracted, over-confident driving human: it is not very smart and quite liable to steer straight into catastrophe.

As children we learn emotional constructs from those around us. We are not born with these emotions (though a baby can seem pretty pissed off, scared and angry at 4 in the morning for a new parent.) There is only discomfort and a sense of ease. These get extrapolated into a whole variety of ‘emotions’ so that we can communicate to others more efficiently what is happening. Anger and sadness are both a form of discomfort but being able to tell the difference between the two communicates exceedingly quick some basic information about the situation.

Back in the caveman days, an angry tribe member would put us on alert with exceptional swiftness. This probably primes us faster for defense from an external enemy (or an internal one..). Whereas a sad tribe member still communicates that something is wrong but does not prime others for a large potential physical struggle (err. fighting.)

(this is an undoubtedly primitive hypothetical example of emotion as communication. For more on this topic, please delve into Lisa Feldman Barrett’s often mentioned work.)

While emotion is useful, problems quickly mount when emotion becomes the default: the autopilot.




New information in the environment arises:

A colleague has made a joint project delayed. Think about what can be done? Nope, just show frustration.

A spouse has made a purchase we disapprove of. Think and discuss? Nope, just show anger.

A foreigner with limited English cannot understand our complicated coffee order. Demonstrate patience and help this person learn and further integrate? Nope just say the order louder, with plenty of aggravation.




The reason why emotion as autopilot causes such problems is because emotions are too simple.

A child can list for you the major emotions.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions gives us 32 emotions with some quaint colors between to indicate a spectrum.

But communication in ANY language yields nearly an infinite spectrum of communication with any degree of depth, detail and thoroughness…


we are willing to take the time.

Emotions blanket the spectrum. Using emotions gets a point across quicker, but at the sacrifice of detail.

And the devil is in the details. Or lack thereof.

Like the ‘experienced’ complacent driver who learns what is ‘ok’ to ignore and develops a kind of autopilot, the emotional human is likewise using a simplified mode of reaction.

Running on emotion is autopilot.



But then the complacent driver after thousands of comforting miles steers into a nuanced situation that cannot be read properly without strong awareness. And the driver might pay the price of that mistake with their life.

The emotional human drives into an argument with emotion and might pay the price of a treasured relationship. Or worse: pay the price of time wasted. Time spent in a slowly degrading relationship that does not die and does not flourish. But just wastes time. Wastes potential. And perpetuates the status quo: a trend of negativity, an open sore never healing, the scab always rubbed off by the next blunt emotional communication. Lacking the detail, the communicative sensitivity that clearly calls each person into focus.

This is the mistake of the autopilot.

Being present actually creates a distance between ourselves and the emotion we might feel.

Being present calls into tight focus what is truly important and the present emotion is rarely what comes into focus.

Isn’t it funny how everyone wants the controller when a single-player videogame is being played with a group of friends? Everyone wants to DRIVE. A chance to pay attention, make a turn, get better. But take the videogame away, give us the vast world that we live in and we are so quick to switch and go through our days on autopilot.


Life is short.

Why spend a single moment of it on autopilot?

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 44: Autopilot

Tinkered Thinking

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