Modern Monitoring Part 2: What Good Monitoring Gets You

We’re in the middle of a three-part series on monitoring and attention – two of the most commented on airmanship skills in the industry today. In our last post we elaborated on Posner’s Spotlight model of attention, simplified graphically below, to describe what is likely the most simple and accurate description of how the brain actually manages the attention process that is so crucial to successful monitoring:

Spotlight Model of Attention

Our suggestion that flight crews need to know more than the average professional about these internal mechanisms is not unique or novel: it’s simply an effort to elevate the science that has been emerging from outside of our industry steadily for over a decade. Other high-risk/high-reliability domains are tapping into this knowledge with great results already.

One of the outcomes of the emerging science has been some interesting party tricks and mental exercises that are now even being marketed by companies who employ them to improve their clients’ mental acuity (maybe you are one of them). You have certainly seen this exercise before, and the basics of what makes your mind work this way contributes to a few fundamental rules for deploying your own attentional system operationally. For over 75 years the “Stroop effect” has been a simple expression of how routine attentional processing can be taken for granted as not requiring very much effort in order to accomplish 100% accurate results. See for yourself, by calling out the color of the letters in each word below:

Stroop Effect Test

Naming the color of ink used for words in the bottom row is more difficult because the name of the word and the ink color are incompatible. No matter how many times we try variations of this test, we can actually feel the extra effort that the brain exerts in resolving the incompatibility (most notably in the time that it takes to resolve the discrepancy and report the color of the word accurately).

There are many more similar exercises, and companies like Lumosity, Cognifit, and Jungle Memory are offering games just like this one (for a fee) to fine-tune their clients’ cognitive thinking. While there are questions whether their claims are true, the fact is that they are at least instructional as to how attention can be better understood by knowing how our own brains process distractions. If you know how incompatibilities or novel targets can occupy the only attention mechanism we have, then you should also be able to deploy that same system with more discipline and purpose operationally. Here’s the list of what the cognitive neuroscience community considers as primary outcomes of high-level attentional control (the kind we rely on for success in the cockpit):

  • Resolving conflict
  • Planning
  • Error detection
  • Responding to novel or difficult targets

Learning how our attentional system manages multiple distractions (what the scientists call “targets”) and then putting that knowledge to practical use on the flight deck through effective monitoring is a front line Automation Airmanship skill that shouldn’t be reserved for only the most experienced professionals we fly with.

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.

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