Auto Matic

“Psychology on the Road” (Observer, June/July 2008) reviews the interrelations of anger control, age, and use of media/communication devices with driving safety.  The authors marvel that safe driving occurs at all, given the increasingly broad set of sophisticated information processing and emotional control strategies required to handle the ever-increasing barrage of sensory information we experience as we drive our increasingly busy roadways.

The article does not take into account the existence and agency of two of the more well-established principles of mind emanating from contemporary developmental psychophysiology: “habituation” and the related concept of “attentional automatization.”  These refer to the process in which repeated experience with a given stimulus or activity nearly invariably results in decrements in responsivity to the repeated stimuli.  Decrements additionally occur in conscious awareness of the repeated stimulus and/or activity.  Thus, most of us have had the experience of driving over a routinely traversed route, only to recognize upon arriving at our destination that we have very little recollection of the route just driven, of having skillfully navigated our car in and out of traffic, nor of what was playing on our car radio.

The article also seems to assume that the mind perfectly registers the external world in unvarying camera-like fashion  (i.e., cameras do not habituate to their reproductions of the photographed subject). But what we know from research in comparative and developmental psychology is that the dualism of objective external world and internal experience is in fact the outcome of a long process of phylogenetic and ontogenetic development.  Perception is an active constructive process, more like an active, creative sculptor that decides which parts of the marble to chip and which parts to retain, rather than a passive camera that always provides the same reproduction of an unvarying stimulus.

Developmental psychophysiologic paradigms assert that (1) boredom is the phenomenological correlate of high levels of attentional automatization resulting from often-perceived stimuli or activities; (2) attentional automatization is the primary function of the mind-brain, without which percipients would invariably only experience high degrees of information overload and the associated experience of anxiety, virtually precluding exploration of new sensory environments; (3) evolution is the development of ever-increasing levels of attentional automatization and faster rates of habituation to repeated stimuli; and (4) large inter-individual differences exist among human adults in attentional automatization and associated boredom experience.

Road rage, aggressive driving, inattention, distractibility, speeding, turning up the radio’s volume, employing communication devices (cell phones, GPS unit, text messaging, Blackberry) and driving under the influence of alcohol can be construed as various means of rectifying high levels of attentional automatization experienced by some of us as we drive routes made familiar and “boring” by increments in driving experience.

My conceptual schema suggests that some highly bored/attentionally automatized individuals probably manifest better attention/alertness to driving contingencies when engaged in high-level multitasking activity, prompting a largely unconscious balancing act between increasing alertness without simultaneously increasing unsafe distraction. ♦

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