Why Your Commute Is Turning You Into A Bastard

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett tells us why the journey into work offends our brains, and how to limit the damage


The big problem for the brain while commuting is that you’re totally restricted – you can’t change anything. You’re also unstimulated as the journey’s repetitive and monotonous, and you’re trapped in a vehicle. And so, because your brain has no expectation of action, it shuts down. This is why you do stupid things like forgetting to get your ticket out before reaching the gates.

Plus all your control over your life is gone in the morning (you’re forced to take a certain route to a certain job), which makes you stressed and irritable. There was a good example of this recently when people complained about being asked to stand on both sides of the escalator at Holborn station, even though it was demonstrably more efficient – people just saw it as another instance of control being taken away.

When the brain responds to an enraging situation like this, it pushes you towards confrontation. When commuting, a lot of the time you’re angry at something you can’t affect – a late train – but the brain is still inflamed, and the feelings of anger remain. The frustration has to be directed somewhere, so you get angry at other commuters – even irrationally, with only the slightest provocation. You become a bit of a monster.

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The brain’s also very sensitive when it comes to how close you’re standing to other people on the train. The fact you’re closer than you would be on the street is OK, because you’re used to it – but if someone’s a centimetre or so closer to you than that, your primitive threat-detection system kicks in. That causes more stress. The margins are so small.

If your commute is around two hours each way, it damages your mental health – you have no time to do things outside of working and commuting. Your control over your life will suffer substantially because you don’t have the time to deal with all your issues. It’s a recipe for severe stress.

The worst method of commuting? The bus. Other people’s actions affect your journey more than they would if you were on the train, and there’s more potential for delays, so you have even less control.

One of the best things you can do for your mind and body before commuting is go to the gym. It gives you that crucial sense that you’ve accomplished something. Generally the key is to make sure you’re stimulated – you need to feel engaged. It’s no good reading a "challenging" book if you’re not taking it in. Read rubbish if it grabs you.

Or, and this goes against London etiquette, it’s worth starting conversations with strangers. Having a person to share your woes is a potent stress reliever.

Dean Burnett's The Idiot Brain is out now via Guardian Faber.