It is not uncommon for drivers to be so deep in thought they arrive at their destination without any recollection of the roads, turns or traffic passed along the way. Many individuals play the anecdote for laughs, but the phenomenon is rooted in a frightening cognitive concept. Numerous factors can contribute to a driver’s loss of focus and attention while behind the wheel and many psychologists refer to this phenomenon as dissociation.
Dissociation, essentially, is a process by which the conscious mind severs a connection to the stimuli of the outside world. A motorist who “zones out” could still potentially make all the correct moves – stopping at the proper signals, using turn signals when changing lanes, identifying stopped traffic – but this isn’t always the case. In a dissociated or frozen state, the mind might recognize common stimuli but fail to alert to discrete or out-of-the-ordinary signals. Lacking the ability to consciously tie stimuli and deciding on a course of action could lead to a serious motor vehicle collision.
Why does this happen?
Psychologists note that dissociation follows a similar path to the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response – often called “fight or flight” – where an individual assesses a situation and makes the decision to battle or leave. Dissociation, then, is when the mind bypasses the stress response and enters a frozen state. In a way, the conscious mind plays dead and allows the subconscious to take control. Individuals can face this response for numerous reasons, including:
- Overwhelming stress
- Severe emotional states such as depression or anxiety
- Facing highly detailed environments
Drivers who notice themselves slipping into dissociation or “highway hypnosis” can take steps to correct the situation and remain fully in cognitive control of the vehicle.
- Tactile response: Remain focused on the feeling of the steering wheel in one’s hands or the fabric of the passenger seat against one’s palm.
- Engaging cognition: Motorists can focus on the driving environment and engage the conscious mind by counting all the green objects in their field of vision.
These techniques can ground a driver in reality, helping to prevent dissociation.
A distracted or dissociated driver can cause devastating collisions on our roads. Whether on a crowded city street, deserted county road or a fast-moving highway, inattentive drivers can cause crashes that result in severe injuries.