Improving Cognitive Processing


With the ever increasing use of Automation in the flight deck, the ability to make good decisions in a timely manner has become a key area of development in Aviation.
There are a lot of studies into good decision models which fit certain circumstances such as DODAR, DECIDE and CLEAR, but if you are not able to process the information required to make those decisions effectively using the models then you may in fact be loading yourself up more trying to apply a model.

Brooks, R. L. (2010)[3] tells us that it is during an Aircraft Upset that you have 7.6 seconds on average to react and make a good decision to recover the situation this is generally accepted as not enough time to react in an appropriate manner if you are unprepared and are unable to process the cues and information in front of you. There are many areas which can improve your response in this instance and one of them is to ensure that your cognitive processing ability is as efficient as you can make it.

How can we make the Cognitive Process more efficient?

It is well understood that when a Flight Crew member is under stress, our cognitive processes deteriorate and limits our capacity.
Garland, D. Hopkin, V. Wise, J. (2010)[1] describe in detail areas to improve our individual processing capabilities, we will focus on three broad areas and concentrate the information here:

  • Mental Workload
  • Training
  • Managing Errors

Mental Workload

Given a situation where you are lucky enough to have very little intrinsic and extrinsic stressors the human mind can process information very efficiently. It is generally accepted that people will focus their attention on one source of stimulai or task at one time. We do however have the ability to discriminate a message from from a background of many messages. For example hearing your name mentioned in a nearby conversation which you are not apart of. Your brain uses physical cues such as your name to then process deeper. It has also been shown that we can carry out multple tasks at one time. Such as using your eyes to focus on something while performing another task with your hands or feet without looking. To do both tasks well involves a degree of knowledge and practice.

A natural response to a high mental workload or "Overloading" is to increase the efficiency of carrying out the task. This may involve cutting corners or accepting lower levels of accuracy. You can even change the way you carry out the task to reduce your own Cognitive processing.

How can we improve our workload management?

  • when planning a task, assume that a person can only perform one task at a time.
  • if you are managing or training personal you will have to become aware of the limits of individuals processing capacity and work within those boundaries.
  • you can either accept that if your workload within a given period of time increases, then the number of those tasks carried out within a given timeframe will reduce. Or you prioritise which tasks to complete in the timeframe.
  • you will have to decide when cutting corners or accepting lower levels of accuracy to reduce workload (or increase tasks completed) is a better decision than just changing your strategy in dealing with the high workload.
  • change strategy in how you achieve tasks or whether you can hand that workload off to another crew member.


The expertise of the decision maker is made up of many skills, abilities and knowledge. Garland, et al (2010)[1] tell us that processing information is a skill in itself which can benefit from training. Multi-tasking skills in particular can be improved by practice and re-coding information to be more efficient.
They go on to provide some pointers to improve Training our Cognitive Processes

  • Maintain or improve aviating proficiency and skills so you can rely on your known standard of processing ability when you need it
  • When improving skills, identify areas where you can multi-task, expand your knowledge of areas such as an emergency system so you don't have to second guess your actions mid emergency.
  • If you plan on using a mental decision making model. Ensure you know the steps and practice them under pressure. Not having to focus on what the model is trying to achieve will free up a lot of mental capacity. This also applies to any mnemonic you have learnt to enable quick recall.
  • High fidelity simulation means that the cognitive processing lesson you are trying to learn can be directly transfered to the real situation for the student.
  • When you are presenting a situation for a student to learn, avoid situations where the task difficulty for the student is at the stage where they are unable to recover from it. To learn a process they need to feel they can master it.
  • Practice recovery techniques from unfamiliar situations. Use alternative methods to discover better solutions to reduce high mental workloads.

Managing Errors

There are many reasons why we can make errors when making decisions or in processing information.

Processing errors to be aware of

  • incorrect expectations and bias about an outcome.
  • only look for information which fits their bias (conformation bias).
  • decisions made using ambiguous or incomplete information
  • misinterpreting or incorrect translation of information
  • suffering a distraction or interruption and forgetting or incorrectly remembering a sequence of information in working memory.
  • focussing your attention in the detail and not looking at the big picture of the situation. For example, the classic looking at a blown light bulb and running out of fuel situation.
  • incorrectly allocation time to task. Both not enough or too much.
  • Not anticipating tasks which then cause an cognitive overload situation.

1. Garland, D. Hopkin, V. Wise, J. (2010). Handbook of Aviation Human Factors. Boca Raton: USA.
2. Bates, P. Martin, W. Murray, P. (2011). What would you do if..? Improving pilot performance during unexpected events through in-flight scenario discussions. Aeronautica, Issue 1, 2011 page 8-22 retrieved from Griffith University on 03 September 2012.
3. Brooks, R. L. (2010). Loss of Control in Flight. European Airline Training Symposium retrieved from IAFTP on 09 September 2012.

Want to know more?

Aircraft Upset
Wikipedia article explaining Aircraft Upsets in flight
decision making
Wikipedia article detailing Decision Making

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