If you’ve ever felt like you just “woke up” shortly after parking your car and wondered “how did I get here?” You may have experienced highway hypnosis. While it’s not the clinical hypnosis definition, it does bare some similar feelings after waking from this state.
What is Highway Hypnosis?
Highway hypnosis is a trance-like state where a person can drive a car for long distances without any recollection of having done so. This is because their conscious mind is focused elsewhere. It’s very common for a driver that experiences Highway Hypnosis to not recollect all or parts of their driving; resulting in partial or complete amnesia of the entire trip.
The term “highway hypnosis” was coined by G. W. Williams in 1963. This term is used to describe the phenomenon of motorists becoming so focused on the road that they do not realize what is happening around them. Highway hypnosis is the manifestation of the common process of automaticity.
Automaticity is the quality or fact of actions being performed without any conscious effort or control, as a reflex, innate process, or ingrained habit.
This phenomenon occurs in many aspects of our lives without realizing it, not just during highway hypnosis. Like walking into a dark room and automatically flipping a light switch. Automaticity tends to stem from highly routine and repetitive actions that take very little thought or processing to accomplish.
While you’re eating food you might make the conscious decision to lift your fork to your mouth but the chewing seems much less deliberate. Breathing itself is another form, while your brain instinctively knows how to signal your body to breath, you can also do this deliberately overriding your default “settings” of a normal pace of breathing. The default setting is automaticity.
A Popular Theory on Highway Hypnosis
There are theories on highway hypnosis that point to a concept of dual streams of consciousness. One stream is driving out of habit and the other stream is focused elsewhere on other problems. While I’ve personally experienced Highway Hypnosis several times, I do not recall any other problems I could’ve been addressing.
I’m reminded of the hypnotic induction method of Pendulum Hypnosis where a object repeatedly passes before your eyes that you concentrate on. You’re typically asked to focus on the pocket watch, or shimmer of the necklace as your mind and body is put into a hypnotic trance. I believe that the reoccurring backdrop of your routine path to and from work are like the pendulum and you “wake” from your highway hypnosis when that backdrop stops moving.
My Personal Experiences
The experience for me has been more of a “zoning out” while driving if anything. I typically won’t remember how I got to my destination, just that I have arrived safely in a parking spot. In fact, it’s been my experience that if I start driving with something heavy weighing on my mind, that the rest of the world tends to tune out last as I get deeper in thought.
More often than not, as I traverse a familiar or boring road, it’s as if my hand eye coordination knows the routine all too well. It’s like they know that my mind is preoccupied so they do the driving for me, like the good friends they are, so I can either focus on a problem or completely relax in the mundane moment.
Healthline has an article on this very topic but they key in on sleepiness or drowsiness as a root cause and I completely disagree with this. While it’s obviously easier to get into a relaxed state (which is typically a requirement for hypnosis) when drowsy, I’m almost always aware that I’m tired and will pull over or grab a coffee to wake me up. I’ve never been sleepy and experience highway hypnosis, but alas, your mileage may vary.
If you’re like to learn more here are some helpful articles on hypnosis: