Airplanes do it high in the sky, cruise ships do it far out to sea, and someday soon even your car will do it, from your driveway to the superhighway.

Reassuring or scary? You decide.

Autopilot, for our dictionary addicted readers, is defined as, “noun: a course-plotting device that automatically keeps planes, ships or other vehicles on a steady and true course.”

Sometimes I’m on autopilot, too – and if you can remember it – so are you… at least if you are like my buddy Bob who texted me one morning, “Not sure how i got home last night… musta ben autopilot. My cars in th drivway, rite?”

Right, Bob. The brain on autopilot can be a mysterious thing. When you set your brain on autopilot, your body is just going through memorized motions. Your mind is gone.

But really smart people who study human brains say that is a really good thing, sometimes. Some stuff that needs to get done doesn’t need to be thought about. What if you had to calculate the distance and measure the terrain before your every step you take? A simple stroll down the street or a jaunt up a staircase really does need you on autopilot.

The thinking part of your brain is not needed for those routine things. Scientists say we are all on autopilot anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of every day. It lets you think while you do other things, like talking to a friend while you take that walk, or like texting your 100 BFFs while you drive…Ooops, I didn’t really mean that, but you get the point.

Sometimes trouble comes, though, when you shouldn’t be on autopilot. Acting and reacting automatically can lead to big mistakes.

Unfortunately, like an airplane or a cruise ship, your autopilot can be hijacked. One of the most dangerous hijackers has a name we all know and hate. That highjacker’s name is Addiction.

This week the Jamestown Gazette aims to remind our readers that the passengers on a highjacked jet airliner are not in charge of the plane. They can’t be given the terrible stigma of the highjacker.

Dr. Richard Blondell, a Family Medicine practitioner at the University of Buffalo, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, recently said, “What these drugs do [opiates, heroin, alcohol] is – in the 10 percent of these people – these drugs have the ability to take over that autopilot in the brain and make the brain think it needs the drugs, the way a thirsty man needs water or the way a hungry woman needs food.”

What Dr. Blondell meant by “these people” is the 10 percent of the population whose brains seem genetically hard wired from birth with a unique susceptibility to addictive drugs, even if they are prescribed by well-meaning care givers. The first taste hijacks the autopilot. Dr. Blondell calls it a congenital brain disease.

Unfortunately, if the age of first taste is before 25 or 26, the young person’s brain has not yet finished forming. The human brain takes a quarter century after birth to build itself. Among the last parts to wire up, according to scientists, is the part that understands dangers and consequences.

That double whammy makes some young people, and a lot of adults, doubly vulnerable, and it is hard to spot which ones they are. Anyone, especially the ones of us who are sure “it can’t happen to me,” can be at lethal risk.
Trouble comes when someone is operating on a highjacked autopilot. Acting and reacting automatically can lead to big and even deadly mistakes.

This week’s message is that care and cure are infinitely more likely to help than stigmatizing and condemnation.

Enjoy the read, as always? Maybe this week the enjoyment is in learning more about caring for each other.

Walt Pickut
The Jamestown Gazette

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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.