Did Highway Hypnosis Exist Before Highways?
A Mysterious Phenomenon
Did people experience the phenomenon associated with highway hypnosis before there were highways around? Well, yes! It was just called something different. The actual physiology of what happens during highway hypnosis is possible to experience without driving; it's just commonly noticed and referred to as what a driver experiences when they continue to drive, but when they snap out of it they oddly cannot remember anything that happened. It especially happens on those long road trips where the scenery doesn't change for a while and it's easy to just "zone out". You may have experienced the non-driving equivalents of highway hypnosis when reading a book or listening to a lecture. Your eyes can take you through an entire page before you realize your mind was completely checked out and you retained nothing. Similarly, you may have your eyes fixed on someone you are supposedly listening to, but realize you cannot remember a word of what he just said. This neurophysiological conundrum can be understood as a total loss of focus on a task without the mind being aware of it. The body can function just fine (the driver keeps driving, the reader's eyes continue to scan the page, and the person listening may nod their head in agreement), but the mind does not retain anything.
Have You Ever Experienced Highway Hypnosis?
What Highway Hypnosis Is NOT
There are some misunderstandings regarding what highway hypnosis actually is. For the sake of distinction, here are three things it is NOT:
1) Driver Dozing (keeping with the alliteration) - Hypnosis is frequently associated with an altered level of arousal that more closely mimics sleep than it does being awake. However, a person does not have to be sleepy in order to be in a state of highway hypnosis. Sleeping at the wheel is one thing, but highway hypnosis is another. Both can be dangerous, but highway hypnosis is arguably safer because the body is still assumed to be going through the motions of performing the task successfully even though the mental awareness may be elsewhere. If you're asleep, you lose complete control and cannot drive at all.
2) Day Dreaming (still alliterating!) - Day dreaming assumes that the mind is actively coming up with hypothetical scenarios or a sequence of events that exist only in fantasy land. Highway hypnosis, on the other hand, occurs when mental activity has been put on hold altogether. It is a separation between body and mind in that the body is still doing the task at hand, but the mind has momentarily checked out and will be back soon (or not so soon). It is not day dreaming, or doing anything else for that matter; it is simply inactive and inattentive.
3) Classic Hypnosis (alliteration streak over...) - I actually experienced what it was like to be hypnotized, under my willful participation with an experienced hypnotist. My firsthand experience may offer some insight that a textbook would not that can help make this distinction between classic hypnosis and highway hypnosis more clear. The best way to describe my altered mental state is that my inhibitions were down. Things I would not normally do in public I would do upon suggestion (or command, rather) by the hypnotist. I was still consciously aware of my choice to disobey him, but I found no reason to. This is not what we find with highway hypnosis. Highway hypnosis causes no reduction of social restraint or really any behavioral modification whatsoever. There is simply a distraction of mental focus without a corresponding distraction of the body's activity.