It is possible that while you are attempting to pay attention to something, you can be drawn off your task by distractions or interruptions to your workload. A distraction is something that pulls your attention away by accident (like a reflex look in the direction of a loud noise). An interruption is something that pulls your attention away with purposeful intent (like the ringing of your cell phone, an incoming text message or someone coming up to talk to you). Both distractions and interruptions can have an impact on situational awareness.
When your workflow is interrupted by a phone call, text message or someone simply addressing you, your brain has to divert its attentional resources from task one (what you were doing before you were interrupted) to task two (what you are now giving your attention to because of the interruption).
Neurologically speaking, it is impossible to give your conscious attention to two simultaneous tasks. There are, in the world, lots of people who think they can multitask the act of paying attention, but functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) research reveals that the brain can only pay attention to one conscious task at a time. You can, however, transfer your attention quickly between tasks (often giving the illusion of multitasking).
Sharing Attentional Space
When you are in an environment where there is both visual and audible information to process, each sensory input device (i.e., eyes and ears) gather their respective information independently, turn the information they gather into electricity and send the messages back into your brain for processing. The brain then compares and contrasts the incoming information and attempts to assemble one coherent understanding of what is happening in your environment. When this process is successful, you are well on your way to having strong situational awareness.
Sharing the Processor
There is, however, only so much horsepower in the brain to capture, process and comprehend information. All of the senses are constantly capturing and sending information to the processors (even when you’re sleeping). When you are operating in a visually stimulating environment, the visual processor can dominate. While the visual processor is dominating, your ability to comprehend what you are hearing can diminish.
When you are operating in an audibly stimulating environment, the audible processor can dominate. While your audible processor is dominating, your ability to comprehend what you are seeing can diminish.
The Potential for Catastrophe is Huge
I am writing this article from the “A” Terminal at Chicago Midway airport. I just completed teaching three days of situational awareness programs and I am on my way to Florida to present at the International Association of Fire Chiefs Volunteer and Combination Officers Section conference. I would like to share the experience that just happened to me as I was going through the airport security line to illustrate the potential consequences when we attempt to share attention.
As my bags were going through the x-ray, I walked through the scanner and then watched the person who was viewing the x-rays on the monitor. As he intently stared at the screen, another TSA agent walked up to him and engaged him in a conversation about something the two of them were planning to do after work.
Both were laughing and joking but the person watching the screen never took his eyes off the screen (perhaps that is a TSA policy? I don’t know). The monitor watching employee didn’t want to “miss” anything. What a fallacy! The minute he engaged in the verbal conversation his brain’s processor started sharing space between what was being said to him and what was being observed by him. This situation is even more dangerous because the visual inputs and the audible inputs are not congruent (meaning they were completely unrelated to each other). The eyes are looking for dangerous items in the bags. The ears are listening to a conversation about the evening’s activities.
As his brain uses resources to process and comprehend the meaning of the audible messages coming into his ears, his ability to process and comprehend visual images can be diminished and, in some cases, significantly diminished. This is an easy phenomenon to research.
Proving the Impact
Simply find someone in a room and give them a complex visual task and measure their ability to process and understand what they are seeing. Then, put the same person in the same room with the same complex visual task and introduce audible messages for them to process and comprehend. If they have to reply back to the audible messages, things can become even worse because replying requires additional mental capacity to formulate and orate their response). The outcomes are predictable, something is going to suffer – be it visual performance or audible performance.
In the case of the chatty TSA agents, the potential for the agent monitoring the x-ray machine to miss seeing illegal contraband or, to see the illegal contraband but not understand what it is, goes way up.
Ahhh, but until brain researchers and TSA administrators/trainers collaborate, we (the traveling public) will all be at risk of having a conversation about evening social plans impact the situational awareness of the employee whose entire job is to see the illegal contraband in luggage. So, you’ve got that going for you the next time you fly… Ugh! Safe travels.
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