If we were forced to choose only one of the Nine Principles outlined in our book, Automation Airmanship, whose mastery would lead to the greatest leap in individual and team performance in aviation (or any other high-risk/high-reliability endeavor), we would choose the Fifth Principle, Monitoring. For it is in monitoring that we find foundational knowledge that enables in some way the activities that constitute the remaining eight principles. We firmly believe that if more were universally understood about what makes up effective monitoring and how that understanding can impact performance, we could eliminate an entire class of “contributing factors” that have been shaping the contemporary safety landscape for the past decade.
You won’t learn in this one blog piece all that you will ever need to know to master Monitoring as an effective, life-long discipline. But we will remind you (and perhaps inspire your own research) that before you can put in place monitoring procedures, you must first build a firm understanding of what monitoring is, in itself, before it is applied to an airplane’s flight path, a critical crew briefing, or a procedural step upon whose correct execution the safety of hundreds may depend on. We have, along with some researchers in human factors, maintained that the most effective model of monitoring is Michael Posner’s “Spotlight” model of attention. It can be expressed simply in this diagram:
This model is a simple rendition of decades of complicated study across neuroscience, psychology and human factors that is now both well understood and universally accepted as how we shift our spotlight (our “attention” mechanism) to important cues in our environment. It can be worded like this:
The ALERT interrupts your attention at one location, causing you to DISENGAGE your spotlight at one location and MOVE it to another location, ENGAGE at the new location, causing enhanced brain activity at the new location, and for the importance of the previous cue to be diminished or eliminated.
You likely have experienced a multitude of distractions or “alerts” while reading the words on this page. If the new alert was novel enough in gaining your attention, you moved your spotlight; if this discussion was more interesting, your spotlight remained fixed on this page and your brain moved the information into its executive networks where high-level thoughts are processed and made meaningful for immediate action or future reference.
Over a hundred years ago the American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote about selective attention in these words:
“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
Modern cognitive neuroscience has confirmed James’ century-old observation. The complexity of the background activities that make the spotlight such an effective model of attention is extensive, and that kind of knowledge is out of reach of many outside of the research community. But its application to the most fundamental activity of maintaining a safe and stable flight path is not. If you can “think about your own thinking” in this single way you will begin to command your spotlight to serve you more effectively than if you more casually rely on your environment—with all of the distraction that our modern culture provides in great quantities and without prejudice—to divert your attentional resources and command your activities.
We have dedicated much of our efforts within our discipline (operating complex aircraft in modern airspace) to bringing the most foundational knowledge of the human-machine dynamic to within easy reach of every one we share the profession with. In the our next three blog posts—including this one—we will move from the foundational basis of effective monitoring and ultimately demonstrate the practical advantages of making this knowledge part of every aspect of your flying profession. We encourage your own comments and participation in one of the most important and interesting safety discussion of our time.
Until our next report, fly safe, and always, fly first.
References: Michael I. Posner and Marcus E. Raichle, Images of Mind, Scientific American Library, New York, NY. 1997.