Attention In Aviation

Let's first see an illusion.

(Video embedded from National Geographic on 29 August 2012)


Wondered why you were unable to notice the changes? Our human brain, for all its glory, is actually very limited in processing information. In reality, we are unable to capture or register everything into our brains, even though our eyes see the information. According to Harris (2011), attention can be defined as the ‘mental phenomenon of concentration’ (pg 24). We select, shift and divide attention, which is the very start of our cognitive processes, in accordance to the needs of a situation (Harris, 2011). As normal human beings, we are only able to form meanings in a very limited way (Harris, 2011). The work that we do or the situation that confronts us may be competing for our attention at the same time (Harris, 2011). Due to our general ability to cognitively focus or process information sequentially or on one thing at a time, our brain only concentrates on those essential cues that feed the cognitive process (Harris, 2011). All other unnecessary perceptions are subconsciously discarded and not registered into our memories (Harris, 2011). This filtering process is so powerful that at times, we cannot even recall events considered inconsequential to our cognitive tasks, even though seen in plain sight or when perfectly audible to others in proximity (Harris, 2011). While this is a natural process of the human body, it can lead to serious consequences when the task demands that our sensory resources be properly divided to achieve a safe outcome e.g. flying an aircraft.

Limits of Attention to the Environment

In the above video, it was apparent that we had missed out on the changes even though our eyes had most probably ‘seen’ those changes. We had selectively attuned our visual attention onto what the magician was about to do and in the process had subconsciously naturally filtered out what was deemed unnecessary (Goldstein, 2004). Selection of what is important is driven by internal goals or by external events (Vidulich, Wickens, Tsang & Flach, n.d.). A pilot who is engrossed in monitoring his flight display systems is internally motivated to selectively attune his attention in order to achieve a goal that he believes will lead to a safe flight (Vidulich et al., n.d.). He may be unaware of an aircraft on a collision course until the collision warning comes (Vidulich et al., n.d.). In such an event, the external cues via the warning system then takes over the attention and now influences information processing and situational awareness (Vidulich et al., n.d.).

Divided Attention to Elements in the Environment

The effects of selective attention, where we process information in a sequential manner, can be cleverly manipulated to achieve parallel or multi-tasking objectives (Vidulich et al., n.d.).

  • Display integration - A classic example is the artificial horizon of the flight display where the aircraft’s roll and pitch configuration is captured by a single device rather than having multiple devices that capture each configuration separately.
  • Automaticity - As the adage goes, practice makes perfect. By being very familiar with an environment or tasks, we can be almost attention free when carrying out our tasks and can easily tune into a situation when our attention is captured by unique events.
  • Peripheral and ambient vision - Even if the focal vision is being utilised for flying operations e.g. monitoring displays, our peripheral vision is capable of alerting us to its relative changing environment like an approaching aircraft.
  • Multiple resources - Human beings are capable of processing information in a simultaneous way provided they require attentional resources. For example, a pilot who is visually scanning his instruments can be immediately alerted to warning sounds or the shudder of the control column that precedes a stall.

Aviation accidents that occurred due to improper allocation of attentional resources

There have been many accidents that had occurred due to improper allocation of attentional resources. New phrases like ‘inattentional blindness’ or ‘ change blindness’ have been coined to describe the causes of these accidents but ultimately they were caused by the natural human tendency to process information or pay attention in a sequential or focused manner. One of the accidents was the Eastern Airlines crash in the Everglades. The pilots were so tunneled into the burnt out landing gear light that they failed to notice that aircraft was descending into the marshlands. They did not notice the altimeter nor the audible warning behind their seats.

(Video embedded from YouTube on 29 August 2012)

Another tragic incident was the Turkish Airlines crash in Holland in 2009. In this instance, the autopilot of the aircraft had erroneously put the aircraft into a flare mode (position taken just before touchdown) while still some distance away from the runway due to a faulty radiometer that gave wrong altitude inputs to onboard computers. The airspeed had decreased and despite the warning lights, the pilots did not notice the situation they were getting into due to high workload prior to landing.

(Video embedded from YouTube on 29 August 2012)

The limitation in allocating attentional resources and information processing is a natural phenomenon. In a multi-tasking environment that requires high safety outcomes, e.g. flying, the limitations can be effectively surmounted through training, display integration and automated warning systems (Vidulich et al., n.d.).

One last video. Count the number of times the basketballs are passed around.

(Video embedded from YouTube on 29 August 2012)

Get the idea?

1. Harris, D., (2011). Human performance on flight deck. England and USA: Ashgate.
2. Goldstein, E. B., (2008). Cognitive psychology: connecting mind, research and everyday experience (2nd Ed). USA: Thomson Wadsworth.
3. Vidulich, M.A., Wickens, C.D., Tsang, P.S. & Flach, J.M., (n.d.). Information processing in aviation. In Salas, E. & Maurino, D. (2010). Human factors in aviation (2nd Ed.). USA: Elsevier.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License