Home All Eyes Wide Open: Putting Limits on Autopilot

Eyes Wide Open: Putting Limits on Autopilot

written by David St. George 15 March 2018

Airplane screensaver

Human flourishing requires full awareness and aggressive agency to design and appreciate a meaningful life. But in our world of increasing distraction, confusing sensory assault, and cultural memes which demand achievement at any cost, we may instead take refuge from fully engaged living. Often this is in what Carr calls the shallows of technological distraction. Or it might be the comfortable human autopilot state of habitual activity. Quite often we disengage into a mind-wandering screensaver mode. Notice our tendency to communicate these less-than-human states with technological terminology.

If we embrace the largest viewpoint, each of us is really the lucky genetic survivor of generations of incremental optimization on this planet over millions of years. Unfortunately, we continue to operate within this evolutionary framework. The thinly veiled cultural mantra to “consume, conquer, and copulate” determines how we all live on this planet. It can drive us through life in a fairly automatic trance. Is it surprising that 2/3 of people are disengaged in their jobs and 15% actually hate the work they do every day, according to Burnett and colleagues? We don’t design and decide how to live; we are largely driven.

Each of our physical brains contain the vestigial layers of this historic journey from reptile functioning to mammal and also from primate to fully human. All these parts are still physically present in every one of us. But to fully experience life on this planet, we need to rise above these powerful cultural and genetic drivers to fully embrace our uniquely human brain functions. We need to consciously design our own personal life experiences and embrace “cooperation, creativity and compassion” if we are to grow and fully flourish, individually and together.

Life as a Pilot

My experience in life has mostly involved teaching and piloting a variety of aircraft all over the United States. This has been a wonderful learning opportunity. Aviation uses some fantastic psychological tools that can be highly useful for everyone in everyday life. These concepts behind these tools enable full human functioning and aggressive agency. Situational awareness and pilot in command authority when applied to daily life experiences are the essence of knowing exactly where you are in time and space and then taking charge and designing optimal outcomes. Metacognitive monitoring is a method of keeping track of rapidly evolving situations in high-stakes environments and assuring a successful outcome. Metacognitive monitoring also calibrates our level of engagement and awareness as we are busy in life. Are we actively piloting or are we flying on autopilot?

Flight control unit – autopilot

To flourish fully, one vital system we must monitor is our human autopilot. Just as in flying, the dual-processor brain theory proposed by Reyna and Brainerd posits both “reflective, thoughtful manual control” and autopilot as separate modes of operation during daily life. Autopilot is how we can famously drive to our destination in a car without remembering anything about the trip, forgetting to stop at the store. Rooted deeply in our evolutionary history, this ability to operate automatically can unfortunately take over and operate our entire life if we are not vigilant. Human autopilot, also called implicit knowledge with habitual scripts and schema is internal and largely invisible during operation. Theories vary as to how much daily life is spent just running scripts, but this mode of operation definitely does not qualify as flourishing.

The human autopilot and associated screensaver mode have great value for survival and efficiency in our busy world, but they function poorly during complex activities or in novel situations. Most importantly, the failure to engage fully prevents awareness, appreciation, and awe which lift our human lives above the quotidian. As in piloting, we must be vigilant to monitor these automatic operations metacognitively and know when to disconnect the magic, take full manual control, and engage. A fully lived life requires engagement and savoring. These skills are easily lost if we live our lives for efficiency and rely on easy operation under the control of habits. It is important to hand fly more of the human experience if we want to flourish.

Example: What Can We Learn from Aviation?

Going Through the Pre-Flight Checklist

All these piloting insights and tools are available to every person. My intention in positive psychology is to apply the tools from aviation to human flourishing, much as Peter Pronovost added aviation checklists to medicine in the Keystone Initiative, so well described by Gawande. Through the simple application of checklist discipline, within the first three months of the project, the infection rate in Michigan’s intensive care units decreased by sixty-six per cent. In the first eighteen months, participating hospitals saved an estimated hundred and seventy-five million dollars in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives, all because of a simple aviation-based checklist.

Understanding these insights and employing the tools from aviation can allow people to take charge of their lives and pilot successful futures through awareness, appreciation, and fulfillment. Embracing your life with eyes wide open allows you to determine and design your own life story, full of appreciation, gratitude, and awe. Good luck.


Burnett, W., Burnett, B., & Evans, D. J. (2016). Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Knopf.

Carr, N. (2011). The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company.

Hertz, N. (2013). Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World. HarperBusiness.

Hertz, N. (2013). Eyes Wide Open Sampler.

Klein, G., Ross, K. G., Moon, B. M., Klein, D. E., Hoffman, R. R., & Hollnagel, E. (2003). Macrocognition. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 18(3), 81-85. Abstract.

Gawande, A. (2010). The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Picador Press.

Reyna, V. F., & Brainerd, C. J. (2011). Dual Processes in Decision Making and Developmental Neuroscience: A Fuzzy-Trace Model. Developmental Review Special Edition on Dual Process Models of Cognitive Development, 31(2-3), 180–206. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2011.07.004

St George, D. P. (2015). Pilot Your Life Decisively for Well-Being and Flourishing. University of Pennsylvania, MAPP Capstone.

Photo Credit: from Flickr via Compfight with >Creative Commons Licenses
Airplane screensaver courtesy of b_d_solis
Flight control unit – autopilot courtesy of realmcflier
Going through the preflight checklist courtesy of ronniefleming@btinternet.com

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