Highway Hypnosis is the term used to describe the situation where someone drives a vehicle and arrives safely at their destination with no memory of driving all or part of the journey. Conditions for highway hypnosis to occur include the driver habituating the entire process of driving to the extent that they can drive without conscious involvement.
This article presents my opinion as a hypnotist as to what’s going on with highway hypnosis. Do not take anything I say here as advice for driving, and always follow your local laws.
Now highway hypnosis might sound dangerous, but in reality, most of the time it’s not anything to worry about.
The main mental danger when driving is fatigue, which is the opposite of hypnosis.
So long as the driver is looking at the road and the things on it, their attention will typically immediately switch back to driving in the event of any kind of emergency.
The truth is that merely forgetting the details of your drive does not necessarily increase the risk.
What does increase the risk is being too tired to drive safely.
Naturally, if the driver goes all the way into a deep trance, that is generally incompatible with safe driving.
What Causes Highway Hypnosis?
Highway hypnosis is caused by fixation on the road ahead of us. The steady hum from the road can lull the mind into feeling safe, while repeated visual impulses from passing trees, buildings, landmarks, and road markings can rapidly deepen the driver’s hypnosis.
To understand what causes highway hypnosis, it’s important to have an appreciation of some of the limitations of the human mind.
Limits Of Human Perception
Human beings can only consciously focus on one thing at a time.
And we can only hold about 7 things in our working memory at once. Any more than this and things start to fall out of our perception.
We literally don’t see the gorilla in front of our eyes.
Luckily we have a built-in unconscious automation process that constructs habits for just about everything we do.
This frees up our conscious minds to do important things like fact-check incoming information, use logic, and laboriously work through new things until they become automated.
Everything else is handled by our unconscious minds.
For most adults, driving is a largely unconscious process. We don’t have to think very much to do it, so when the driving is easy our minds tend to wander.
What Can Cause Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is a natural phenomenon which may occur when our conscious attention is fully absorbed.
Anything at all that bypasses our conscious processes may guide someone into hypnosis. This includes things like moving their attention elsewhere, and lulling the alerting system to sleep.
How Highway Hypnosis Is Related To Fixation
The act of focusing intently on the road can lead to a state of mono-focus. When people focus on only one thing, they tend to go into hypnosis.
And when someone is fixated on the road in front of them for too long, they tend to start to zone out a bit.
The constant hum from the road lulls the mind into a sense of security. It feels safe, so the alerting mechanisms start to become less active.
Our alerting mechanism still kicks in almost instantly if anything unexpected happens, so it’s largely safe so long as we’re still looking at the road and the things around us.
In hypnosis, there’s a process known as fractionation which hypnotists use to quickly deepen trance. Fractionation is a way of having the hypnosis subject quickly gain a lot of experience at going in and out of hypnosis.
Driving along some stretches of road can result in constant interruptions to our visual field which can grab our attention. This brings us out of hypnosis a bit.
Sometimes there are regular patterns such as road markings and shadows from evenly spaced trees. Coupled with our fixation on the road, these drop us right back down into hypnosis.
As a result, we can become heavily fractionated and may be driven all the way down into a deep trance state if we don’t frequently shift our focus. This is where it gets potentially dangerous.
Why Do We Forget Driving?
Highway hypnosis is an altered mental state, which makes it difficult to recall associated memories when we’re not in hypnosis. When our thoughts wander, we may not have any conscious awareness of driving from which to create conscious memories.
Our conscious memories tend to only include the things that we were actively focused on to some extent.
There is some evidence to suggest that other memories can be recalled under hypnosis. However, the underlying way in which memory works makes it likely that such unconscious memories are largely made up.
And since most people don’t know how to intentionally place themselves into hypnosis, in practical terms most people can only recall their conscious memories of things they were focused on in the past.
Human memory is also state dependent: It is much easier for us to recall things when we’re in a similar state. When we’re happy, we can more easily recall happy memories. And when we’re sad we can more easily recall those memories.
Highway hypnosis is a different mental state than most people experience when not driving. Which means that memory recall is inhibited when we’re not in that state. The lack of the constant hum and road noise further isolates us from those memories.
We effectively lose the conscious recall pathway to the act of driving because we weren’t thinking about it and the state was different to our regular state.
How To Avoid Highway Hypnosis
Highway hypnosis may be avoided by periodically switching our focus from staring intently at the road. We can further minimize the risk by learning to monitor our mental state, and by ensuring we take adequate breaks from driving.
Anything we can do to shift our attention briefly from the road in front of us will help to inhibit highway hypnosis.
But we have to be careful.
Some activities can make driving more dangerous, so be sure to not do any of those in an effort to prevent highway hypnosis.
Tips from a hypnotist on things you can do to avoid highway hypnosis:
- Constantly move your focus by looking at different things around you while driving, including road markings, signs, other vehicles, obstacles, and rear-view mirrors.
- Take regular breaks to ensure you can remain alert.
- Listen to a podcast or audio recording. Be aware that this one will inhibit your ability to recall driving.
- Keep your attention on the journey itself if you would like to remember it.
- Maintain an optimal in-vehicle environment for alertness.
- Monitor your internal state so that you know when you start to go into hypnosis.
- Develop your state control skills so that you can easily bring yourself out of hypnosis.
- Avoid driving when not well-rested.
Whenever I am driving long distances, I constantly monitor my state. If I begin to drop into hypnosis, I pull over for a break and use a simple self-hypnosis exercise to bring myself back out.