|Responsibility for Mental Autopilot
||[Jan. 4th, 2017|06:40 pm]
Your brain is quite capable of performing tasks without you consciously thinking about them. You aren't making decisions along the way, your body just follows the instructions coming from the non-conscious part of your brain until the conscious part interrupts it. I call this your autopilot.
Breathing and blinking are the simplest examples. Your body just keeps doing them on its own until your consciouos mind takes over, and if you stop paying attention then the autopilot takes back over. I am drawing a distinction here between the parts of the autonomic nervous system that you can consciously override and the parts you [mostly] can't (heartbeat, pupil dilation, etc).
In the middle comes things like knitting, walking down stairs, or cutting vegetables, for people with enough experience. Two of those examples are things most people can't do (effectively/safely/at all) on autopilot, while one is something that almost everyone has enough practice at by age 10 to never have to think about again unless they want to or encounter an unusual situation.
At the other end of the spectrum, plenty of people can drive a car without thinking about it, especially if they've driven the route a thousand times before (like a commute). If you've ever finished a drive and realized "I don't remember anything that happened along the way because I was thinking about other stuff", this is you.
Who is responsible for actions that you take while you're on autopilot?
I put this in a similar place to getting drunk. When you drank the booze, you accepted responsibility for what your drunk self was going to do later. When you activate your autopilot, you're accepting responsibility for what your unconscious self is going to do later. This does not apply to misbehavior during mandatory engagements of autopilot, such as sleepwalking, although there are other considerations about responsibility if you can predict that your autopilot is going to malfunction.
Anecdotally, one of my more successful relationships ended after I became unbearably frustrated at my partner's autopilot. Too frequently I would ask "why did you [not] do X?" or "why were you [not] doing X?" and her answer would be "I didn't think about it". We could readily agree that X was not the right thing to do, and that she would have chosen not-X if she had thought about it, but she was on autopilot at the time. I held her responsible for X while she did not.
PS: As I use the terms, there is a tight correlation between disengaging autopilot and "being considerate". Considering something means thinking about it, and using that thinking to direct your decisions. When you're running on autopilot, you are not being considerate, by definition, because you are considering nothing.