At some point in our lives, we will all experience going on ‘automatic pilot’ to complete those tasks we have embedded as part of our habits and routines – it is our brain’s way of reducing cognitive load and saving energy. So what are the implications of this ‘energy saving’ system on our ability to be aware of the hazards that are around us? The study of neuroscience, and increased accessibility to neuroscience based research, is helping those of us who are ‘non-scientists’ to understand how the brain perceives and processes information. This research gives us an insight into what is influencing our decisions, actions, and ultimately, our behaviours.
The intention of this training module is to explore the aspects of the brain related to our ability to pay attention, and the decision making processes we use, to help us recognise and respond to hazards around us. It will draw on a case study, used to increase awareness of hazards and generate some thoughts on how the teachings of neuroscience can be incorporated into our personal and organisational risk management practices.
Firstly we look at the theory of how the brain perceives and processes information. In particular:
- How we receive information
- What grabs our attention
- What drives our decisions
- What influences our actions
How we receive information
Even though we may not be aware of it, our brain is constantly scanning our environment, often looking for threats. Research on the amount of information that our brain senses at any given time varies, from millions to billions, however; what is consistent is the fact that the brain is equipped with filters that protect it from being overloaded. Put simply, we are aware of less than 5% of the information that we sense, or in other words, we do not respond to over 95% of the information that we receive at any given time.
What grabs our attention?
Attention is linked to our consciousness, so for something to get through to us, we have to be alerted to it. Attention can be viewed as a system of networks, one of which is responsible for the function of ‘alerting’. Most commonly, we are alerted to things that are:
- Dangerous or rewarding – the brain is wired to minimise threat and maximise rewards
- Unusual – the brain has a built in error detection system
- Relevant – the brain ‘tunes in’ to things that have meaning to us
- Entertaining – the brain loves novelty!
However, even if something has grabbed our attention, there are factors that can impair our ability to pay full attention to the situation. In essence, if we are so focused on doing a task, we may miss something unexpected happening, even if it happens right in front of our very eyes. Another aspect, that impairs our ability to pay full attention, is that of divided attention – often referred to as ‘multi-tasking’. The danger of multi-tasking is that you are under the illusion that you are performing the task at the same level of competency, and the hazard, is thinking that you are in control – when you are not. Impaired attention may lead us to missing hazards that are around us, whether it is due to:
- Focusing on one thing and missing another
- Undertaking two cognitive processes at once
What drives our decisions?
Once something has ‘grabbed’ our attention, the brain then processes this information to make a decision. Decision-making processes used within the brain are complex and involve many neural networks and regions of the brain. In its simplest form, we can say that our decisions are made consciously and non-consciously.
- Conscious decisions are processed in our working memory, based on reasoning and include conscious control over our response.
- Non-conscious decisions are often driven from our automatic habits, routines, learned responses. They include our ‘flight/fight’ response where our instincts take over, giving us less control over our response.
In some cases we are very aware of our decisions, and in other cases we do things that we are simply not aware of. What influences our actions? Even when we have made our decision, there are factors that can influence the actions we take. Two factors that may influence our ability to be aware of hazards include:
- Habits and routines
- ‘Mirror’ neurons
Habits and routines
One of the functions of our ‘energy saving’ system is for the brain to hardwire as many tasks as it can. The brain recognises patterns and routines and stores them in the ‘basal ganglia’ – part of our non-conscious decision making process. It allows us to make automatic decisions without much effort.
Learning skills and trades by observing and imitating others has been a training strategy for many years. An example of this is experienced workers teaching their apprentices trade skills. However, the brain is also wired to imitate another person’s actions without us realising it. In the late 1990’s, researchers identified specific brain cells that fire when a person observes an action performed by another. The interesting fact is those cells that are firing are the same cells, regardless of whether we are observing the action or actually performing the action. But, what if the actions of individuals are inappropriate or unsafe? Without intervention, or being ‘conscious’ of our own actions, unsafe acts could be ‘mirrored’ by others.
Theory of hazard awareness summary
In summary, we may not be aware of hazards around us if:
- We filter out important information
- The potential hazard has not ‘grabbed’ our attention
- We miss unexpected events occurring
- We continue to use old habits when the conditions have changed
- We ‘mirror’ another person’s actions without being aware of it
Simply knowing about some of the brain’s limitations can help us understand what influences our own actions and behaviours. We can then make better decisions to manage hazards in our environment.
Understanding the limitations the brain has on our ability to be aware of hazards helps us take control of the decisions we make, and the actions we take.
At the end of this session, participants will be able to: (not limited to)
- Describe how the brain perceives and processes information
- Identify the four characteristics associated with ‘attention’
- Describe the two factors that drive our ‘decisions’
Identify two factors that influence our ability to be aware of hazards