Liminality, Detachment, And Recovery

There’s an interesting thing by Matthew Piszczek and Kristie McAlpine on The Conservation about the psychological benefits of commuting suggesting that while many people seem to view their commute as “a chore and a waste of time” in fact it is “a source of ‘liminal space’.”

We reviewed research on commuting, role transitions and work recovery to develop a model of a typical American worker’s commute liminal space. We focused our research on two cognitive processes: psychological detachment from the work role – mentally disengaging from the demands of work – and psychological recovery from work – rebuilding stores of mental energy used up during work.

Based on our review, we developed a model which shows that the liminal space created in the commute created opportunities for detachment and recovery.

I’d thought to bring this up here mostly because as an autistic person I’ve blogged a lot of about things like task switching and, most recently, about something I termed the “autistic local cache”.

When we move from that environment into another, we have to re-save the first environment’s information set in case anything new needs to be added, clear our local cache, and then load into the local cache the relevant information set for the new environment.

In a sense I guess I’d suggest here that the autistic brain requires increased access to liminality than might be expected for a neurotypical brain. Relevant here, too, is my whole thing about the narrative versus the database, in that experiences that present to me, or are read by my brain as, databases lack that sort of liminal space, whereas in a very real sense narrative encompasses the need for such things.

Funnily enough, when (unsuccessfully) searching for a similar reference to commuting that I swore I’d seen in a discussion about the absence of commuting during the pandemic, I found an old post (link won’t work until that post gets imported here) about, as it turns out, how terrible was my last commute.

The job itself only was four hours a day, but the physical and psychic burden of that commute upon my still-only-recently-diagnosed autistic self was part of what led to the crash-and-burn which ended my employment after just six months.

Piszczek and McAlpine so say “that day-to-day variations may affect whether this liminal space is accessible for detachment and recovery”, so the above is not out of line with anyone else’s experience except to the degree that it wasn’t a day-to-day variation in commute but the toll of the commute itself atop the job.

At any rate, my point wasn’t, and isn’t, about commutes but about transitions, and I also landed on another old post (same disclaimer as before) about an Emily Paige Ballou piece about adaptation looking like laziness that stresses the need for minimizing transitions, taking processing time, and mitigating inertia.

(Side note: in my post about that piece, I highlighted that Ballou discusses “the specific idea of motor transitions and the resources involved there”, something that I’d not considered at the time but which is enormously relevant to me now that I’ve also had my developmental coordination disorder diagnosis.)

Laziness, in other words—in addition to not existing—might better be considered in terms of making for oneself the liminal space required for Piszczek and McAlpine’s “detachment and recovery”.


  1. I found the earlier reference to commuting that I’d seen earlier during the pandemic: a piece by Jerry Useem for The Atlantic.

    In its pre-pandemic heyday, we very narrowly thought of the commute as doing one job: getting us to and from our place of work. But clearly, the commute was doing something more, something that we failed to appreciate. What was it?


    Broadly, boundary theory holds that however much Facebook encourages employees to bring their “authentic selves” to work, we have multiple selves, all of them authentic. Crossing between one role and another isn’t easy; it’s called boundary work. And the commute, as Arizona State University’s Blake Ashforth and two collaborators wrote in a seminal paper on the topic, “is actually a relatively efficient way of simultaneously facilitating a physical and psychological shift between roles.”

    I also re-found something of a counterpoint by Anne Helen Petersen detailing how Piszczek and McAlpine’s “day-to-day variations” that could make someone’s commute more or less liminal are for many people actually more like daily grinds that “involve multiple stops, backtracking, and amplifying stress”.

    None of which is directly relevant to my focus above on cognitive transitions but seemed worth adding here since I did say I’d seen previous pieces on the impacts of commuting.