Thursday, December 20, 2012

Performance Based Navigation through Psychoeconomic Lens - Part I: the psychological perspective

I begin this post firstly with an apology for being late; I was trying to make a game and secondly, an invitation to play a game by clicking on Concentration. Take note of the time you take to solve the puzzle. This is just one of several games used in psychology to demonstrate the role of memory. I am still working on a game for Atcos that I will post when I am done.

For the next 3 or 4 posts, I will focus on the psychoeconomic perspective of Performance Based Navigation (PBN). For this first part, I focus on the psychological aspect of PBN. Please read on if you would like to know more... 

In Air Traffic Control, short term memory and attention are important. From aircraft start-up to taxi to departure clearance to takeoff to approach to enroute to transfer, a different aspect of memory is involved. Can you recall all of the aircraft you spoke with today? Do you remember the QNH at 1600 UTC? Do not despair if you answered both questions in the negative. I am simply trying to demonstrate that much of ATC is done with our short term memory.

According to prominent research by scholars like Tulving (1972) and Baddeley (1974), our memory can be subdivided according to the type of information it processes, how it processes the information and the time taken to process the information.  For clarity in the context of ATC, I will use a simplistic model of memory subdivision of ShortTerm Memory (STM). Think of a snow-capped mountain. Memory is activated by sensory stimuli (in ATC, it will be sight and sound), so we have sensory memory at the tip like a snow capped mountain. Below the snowy layer of sensory memory, we have the storage part of  the Short Term Memory (STM) that takes an inventory of the incoming stimuli. The memory stimuli is then transferred to the working memory which processes the memory stimuli and from which we issue instructions in ATC. For unusual situations we go into storage - our Long Term Memory (LTM). If you felt unusually tired after working weather deviations or handling disabled aircraft on the runway and so on, it is likely that you went into storage memory that day. LTM is the vault of experiences and useful memory coding that come in handy when there are unusual situations. 
ATCOs are required to take speedy action by making a judgement based on what we see, what we hear and what we know. In unusual situations we rely on deeper aspects of memory where our experiences are stored. Overall, we take action by issuing an instruction.  

Thus seeing a cessna on downwind will stir our sensory memory because we see the cessna. But if we have to give traffic information, the details about the cessna invoke our short term memory. If we are in an Approach  or Enroute scenario we rely on our working memory to make judgements based on quick hand-eye coordination and knowledge. What do the underlined verbs have in common? If we are not as attentive as we should be, will we quickly identify traffic, or skillfully use the radar to spot potential errors? Attention therefore plays an important role in memory use. 

What are some interferences to attention in the ATC unit?

Yes, we need attention in order to issue instructions in an operative atmosphere of expedition, order and most importantly safety.  Go back and repeat the puzzle. Take note of the time taken to complete it. Did you notice that you completed the puzzle in a shorter time? This is because you were more attentive or more aware so it was easier to focus on locating the images. 
The question that now arises is, what can make us not as attentive as we should be in the ATC unit? The presence of interferences can reduce our attention span. Psychologists will tell us that STM, attention and interference go hand in hand. Automatically, the issue of inattention raises the effects of fatigue and also the question of wellbeing in the Atc unit. 
The introduction of PBN could increase the risk or the danger of  interference for Atcos particularly in the Approach and Enroute scenarios? Is there a link between inattention and PBN? These questions will be discussed in the following Parts. 
As a hint of what to expect, click on Van Gogh's painting of a Starry Night and zoom in until you see the 'pixels' of this painting. Have a great weekend!

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