Brains on Autopilot Run Into Predictable Errors
> 4/22/2008 1:35:43 PM

While TSA luggage screeners might be alert and meticulous when checking the first few bags of the day, they are more likely to let things slip by as the hours drag on. Thinking carefully takes a lot of energy, and your brain takes whatever shortcuts it can to coast by with the minimum expenditure of resources. A study by Dr. Tom Eichele, published in the newest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, explores the costs of this laziness by showing that the brain often switches into an "autopilot" mode before errors increase.

Dr. Eichele scanned the brains of 13 participants with an fMRI as they performed a series of quick but boring visual task. Earlier researchers had already shown that maladaptive neural activity in the immediately preceding task can predict mistakes in the current task, but Dr. Eichele looked further back to see if longer-term predictions are possible. He found that he could detect maladaptive activation patterns that began up to 30 seconds before mistakes.

To be more precise, Dr. Eichele observed both activation and deactivation abnormalities. Deactivation of the attention and sensorimotor regions of the brain unsurprisingly led to greater errors, but a more intriguing finding was that errors were more common when this deactivation was combined with the activation of the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is associated with states of mind that involve relaxation and minimum concentration. These patterns of activation and deactivation are widespread, natural shifts rather than specific malfunctions.

Many jobs with fatal consequences for failure are humdrum for the 99% of the time where routine action is sufficient, but slipping into a corner-cutting state of mind will impair you for the 1% of the time when a mistake will cost lives. Just as autopilot software, which is now advanced enough to fly a plane safely through most conditions, still requires human supervision for maximum reliability, our brains should not be left on autopilot for monotonous but crucial tasks. While fMRI machines are currently too clunky to use on employees with vital responsibilities, it may be possible to develop portable devices to warn workers when they are slipping into an error-prone state of mind. A 30 second warning might be enough to avert disaster.

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