Attention is a River

You can’t go far in today’s modern world, brimming with screens and input devices (known in the human factors world as “attention attractors”) without witnessing an individual or group engaged in what many of us would call inappropriate use of attention resources. Involving distracted driving alone, the National Safety Council in 2010 reported over a million automobile accidents in the U.S. involving cell phone use and over 200,000 more accidents were directly attributed to texting while driving. It remains a matter of speculation how much of a factor “attention attractors” played in unsafe or undesired outcomes across dozens of high-risk/high-reliability occupations like aviation, energy exploration, medicine, law enforcement and military operations. It follows without surprise that the NTSB, the Flight Safety Foundation and many other organizations have become more interested in the importance of monitoring as a front-line flight deck skill than ever before. But what can you the crewmember do – today – to improve your own ability to manage your attention across the wide array of routine distractions present on the flight deck?

We maintain in our book Automation Airmanship® that knowledge of the “wetware” is essential in understanding how to inoculate oneself and one’s crew against the danger of a breakdown in monitoring, and devote an entire chapter to this often misunderstood principle of airmanship. In the January 7, 2013 New Yorker magazine, an article by Adam Green profiled one of the world’s most accomplished pickpockets, Apollo Robbins. Robbins’ abilities are so advanced, Green reports, that psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and even military researchers study his methods for what they can tell them about human attention. “Attention,” Robbins says, “is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”

If you pause to consider this concept as it applies to your duties in and around the flight deck, flight preparation, and even post-flight you can visualize the “channels” that occur naturally and by design on the flight deck that keep your attention properly “diverted” to attend to the most critical details at any given time. Not unlike the “spotlight” concept we discuss as a cornerstone of the principle of Monitoring, once your attention has been diverted away from flight-critical responsibilities, it’s increasingly difficult to get back without losing some situational and mode awareness. It’s like having your pocket picked: what happens when an unsuspecting thief diverts your attention can ruin your entire day.

For years I have been investigating, writing and instructing on maintaining strict monitoring protocols. And I’ve been an international traveler since graduating from college – and still, I’ve had my pocket picked twice: once on the West Bank in Israel, and once in Tottenham Hale Station along the London Tube. Both occurrences had the same qualities: a carefully managed distraction by the thief, and my own mismanagement of my individual attention “spotlight.” Knowing how the thieves carefully diverted my attention has made me a better and more resilient traveller, improving my own resistance against having a bad day, as well as transferring that resilience to those I’m travelling with. Understanding the “wetware” has, likewise, made me a more reliable member of the flight deck crew, improving outcomes for everyone on the flight deck.

Memphis, Tennessee 

August 2013

2 thoughts on “Attention is a River”

  1. Let me see if I have this right. We need to keep an eye on the things that might actually distract us from our regular flight deck duties, as well as making sure we keep the airplane blue-side up.

    How do we do that without becoming so distracted by potential distractions, that we still forget to fly the airplane?

  2. From the Author: Good question Rob. The “Spotlight” model of attention management means that you can lose contact with anything that’s NOT in your spotlight. Apollo Robbins (in the video above) demonstrates this with great affect. So your first comment, which is taken as “tongue in cheek” (I think), implies that we can get overwhelmed in monitoring everything; of course, that’s not only impractical but it’s one of the first principles of flight deck management that every crew member learns.

    Flying the airplane IS the point. The whole point. Pulling out a personal laptop for the duration of the cruise segment of a flight (and obscuring cockpit instruments, let’s say) , violating sterile cockpit rules with conversation (often heated) about politics, money or labor relations (let’s just say), cluttering the HUD with unnecessary data — the list goes on — is overtly inviting distraction by consciously engaging the spotlight on non-essential flying distractions.

    Unfortunately, because (we think) it has been largely misunderstood and therefore relegated to the back seat, Monitoring has not been viewed with the knowledge and discipline required of a contemporary front-line principle of airmanship.

    We explain the concept in great detail in Chapter 8 of Automation Airmanship (with examples); we think it’s one of the most important issues in managing the 21st Century flight deck.

    Thanks for posting your comment, Rob! We hope this helps!


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