My senior year of high school, I was finally given the privilege to drive to school everyday. At the beginning of the year, I cherished my morning commute and it actually made me excited to get up and go to class at 8 a.m. I would get in the car equipped with my coffee and belongings for the day and turn on my morning playlist, consisting of my go-to jams. After I got used to the routine of driving to school and following the same pattern every day, the thrill and excitement of my morning commute slowly began to fade away. Towards the middle of the year, I would get in my car and begin the commute to school- almost robotically.
A key characteristic of this routine was that I would often not even remember the drive to school. The entire ride seemed to be erased from my memory and left me wondering how I got from my house to the school. This process of “zoning out” is one that has fascinated me for some time. I have wondered how the brain is able to erase certain events or experiences that come as a “routine”. Since I was following the same routine everyday, it came almost like second-nature to me. So why are we unable to remember our morning commutes to work or school? Where does this process of zoning out originate from, and how?
Studies from the Journal of Consumer Psychology and the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science have shown that the reason why people are unlikely to remember their daily commutes to work and school is because of it’s routine nature. It all comes down to how our brain perceives time and familiarity. For example, a morning commute that is taken every day is noted as a shorter period of time in the brain. There is less processing to be done in the brain because the task at hand is not new and does not require extensive comprehension. On the other hand, new experiences, such as visiting a new country or meeting a new group of people require in-depth processing in the brain. You are absorbing new knowledge and filing the new experiences into your memory. These new experiences are seen to have happened during longer periods of time because the brain takes longer to process the new information.
David Eagleman, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, supports the idea that memory and perception of time go hand in hand with one another. As we grow older, we acquire more knowledge and experiences, which leaves little room for new processing in the brain. Once we become familiar with the world and how it works, we spend less time trying to comprehend certain events. As a result, we believe time passes by more quickly. This is another reason why we remember almost every important milestone in our childhood, but fail to realize what has happened in the last week or in our day-to-day lives.
One particular study by the Journal of Consumer Psychology tested to see if the influence of music would have an effect on the way individuals perceived the passage of time. In this case:
Null hypothesis: the influence of music stimulus will have NO effect on the way individuals perceive time.
Alternative hypothesis: the influence of music stimulus will have an effect on the way individuals perceive time.
False positive: scientists claim that the influence of music stimulus (positive/negative) does NOT have an effect on the way individuals perceive time when it really does.
False negative: scientists claim that the influence of music stimulus (positive/negative) has an effect on the way individuals perceive time when it really doesn’t.
The results of the study showed that those individuals exposed to a positive music stimulus (major key) reported longer periods of time compared to individuals exposed to a negative music stimulus (atonal). Those who experienced negative music stimulus perceived time as going by quicker than those who experienced a positive music stimulus, believing that time was going by slower than it actually was. Therefore, the conclusion of this study led to the rejection of the null hypothesis (the influence of music stimulus will have NO effect on the individuals perceive time). Although this study does not directly relate to the concept of the morning commute, it supports the idea that certain stimuli will affect the brain’s perception of time. Similar to the variable of familiarity, the positive/negative music stimulus in the study affects the way individuals perceive time.
So, the next time you don’t remember your drive to school or walk to class, know that it’s just your brain of telling you to spice up your life. Just kidding. However, life should not be lived through routines and patterns- make the most out of your time and try something new every once in a while!