So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Why do we “zone out”, or stare into space?
A small amount of stimulation, such as heavy traffic, can put some people into a dissociative state. An individual in such a state may stare ahead blankly without processing what he sees. To achieve a dissociative state, the body releases opiates into the brain.
Zoning outputs you in some form of a Default Mode Network. During this time your brain is probably processing information and making new connections from a broader perspective based on a recent input. Think of this like when you want to think something over and “sleep on it” and wake up with new insights, except it’s happening while you are awake in a smaller form. DMN will maximize the amount your mind can wander and process the information you have just learned.
Being in a dissociative state while driving is known as “highway hypnosis.” Chronic dissociation limits perceptions and the ability to interact with others. This can be a sign of epilepsy in young children if it’s occurring regularly.
But note: it’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Obviously, if it happens in traffic/on the highway/during something very important, it is a bad thing.)
Sometimes your brain needs a break, meaning it’s going to “shut off” for a minute. If it happens longer than a few minutes, or if it’s a constant thing, then you might need medical attention. Otherwise it’s just taking a minute to process something.