The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

When Cognition Fails



So here I am driving in the outside lane of the motorway early in the morning… and… there’s… a… car… coming… straight… towards… me…


That was the situation I was faced with last week. Fortunately I’m still here to think about it, but think about it I have – from the point of view of a psychologist. I spend my days lecturing on scripts and schemas and their influence on our actions, but rarely do I (or anyone) get to consider them in such a profound way.


You may have missed the story in the press on Friday 16th January 2015 – fortunately nothing too serious happened, but the outcome could have been calamitous. A car took a wrong turn onto the M4 motorway, one of the busiest motorways in the UK, in the dark of the early morning and drove for 10 miles the wrong way up the motorway in the outside lane (the ‘fast’ lane). I was driving to work at 6.30 that morning towards Swansea (driving in the correct direction!) and was one of the first people to experience this car coming in the wrong direction – this is the story of the psychology of that experience.


I’ve driven along that road at about that time almost every day for the last 6 years… I even recognise some of the same cars and lorries day after day. The journey becomes almost automatic – that doesn’t mean that you take no notice of things, it means you become tuned out from the conscious requirements of the everyday – the minor adjustments of the steering wheel for the camber of the road, the signs… you know them, they don’t matter. You focus on the differences – the other cars on the road usually. You can even predict what others will do because you know either what you would do or have done, or what others have done… every day for six years. You develop what we call a schema – a script for what will happen next, based upon what has always happened before. Yes, it has to be adaptable because things can happen – but even then those adaptations are based upon other things that we know; seeing brake lights, the flashing of sirens, a concentration of traffic, we might not know the exact issue we are faced with but we know what it means and put our adaptations into place (slowing down, increased vigilance, etc.). One of the best places to witness people and their scripts is in a restaurant – most of us have an idea of what goes on in a restaurant, in terms of sitting at a table and having our order taken and then food being brought to us which we then eat; but it is great to watch people in a restaurant for the first time – the uncertainty of whether to take a table or wait to be assigned one; do we help ourselves from that salad bar or is that not part of our ‘dining experience’? That drinks dispenser over there, is that for general use or for the staff to get people drinks? The whispers as people try to work it out in their group, the uncertain movements and watching of what other people do show just how important our scripts are to us. And if we go again, our script for that specific restaurant is much stronger and so we know what we are doing (more, at least).


But what happened on that day completely destroyed any schema I had. On a single-track road other cars come towards you… even on a one-way street in a town you might expect (as a long-shot) a car to take a wrong turn down it. But on a motorway? Three lanes of traffic one way, a big barrier, and three lanes the other way; an entry system designed, not just with signs but even with the way the entrance and exit lanes are set up, to stop people from driving onto the wrong side. In short, I had no expectation that a car would come towards me in the other direction as I drove down it… and that nearly cost me my life.


At 6.30 in the morning traffic was fairly light – no empty sections of road, but enough for all three lanes to be used for overtaking. And so, as I approached the Pyle/Pencoed junction (a fairly straight slight downhill section) I was travelling at 70mph and overtaking some cars in the outside lane. There was a fair bit of traffic coming the other way, it’s dark so everyone has their lights on, and then… there seem to be headlights directly in front of me. Of course, there can’t be – that’s what my brain is telling me. There can’t be a car coming towards me because this is a motorway and we are all travelling in the same direction; I’m obviously seeing things. And I’m still travelling towards these lights, because my cognitive system cannot get to grips with what my visual system is presenting to it.


Now my brain tries to work out why these lights are in front of me – maybe a car has spun around and is facing me. My body starts to catch up – brake? Pull in? I’ve been overtaking other cars so they must still be to my left. Except my judgment seems to be off – my distance to this object is getting closer far sooner than should be possible if it is stationary – it is actually coming towards me and I do have the time that I had very swiftly calculated. But that can’t be, because the only way that would be possible is if something is driving towards me… and that’s not possible!


I throw the car to the left – there could be something there but better to hit something side on than head on – a reflex action that must be buried deep in my brain, beca use it wasn’t a choice decision that I had made, and the other car misses the back of my car by about a foot. Still my brain can’t comprehend what has happened… am I imagining things? Did that just happen? (I wasn’t the only one to have that thought, as this tweet shows).


I drive about another 30 seconds and then it hits me physiologically – my heart pounds, my hands are shaking so much I can barely hold on to the wheel. I slow to a crawl on the hard shoulder and phone the police. Even when explaining what has just happened to them I can barely believe what I am saying – I’ve just swerved out of the way of a car driving the wrong way up the fast lane of one of our major motorways. I get out of the car and feel helpless – I can’t see how this is going to end in anything but carnage… maybe it has already happened? And it could have been me – I drove straight towards it because my brain wouldn’t allow me to comprehend it. A brain that has kept me alive in a war, a terrorist attack, has guided me through lots of tricky situations. It took in all the information- and couldn’t do anything with it.


We like to think we are these highly adaptable creatures, yet we forget how much we rely on our prior knowledge, our schemas, our expectations – take that away and sometimes we quite literally believe what we are seeing with our own eyes.




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