Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cognitive Tunnelling: How to Achieve Focus Through Stories - Tip #102

What happens in "failure of attention?"

A lot of things are getting automated these days and it’s no longer limited to factories and industries. Automation now also allows us to control our home’s air conditioning units, lights, and appliances. It’s a good thing for sure, especially for those who benefit from them the most like the elderly and the disabled. 

However, automation is a double-edged sword and over-reliance on it can lead to dire results. In worst-case scenarios, failure of attention can lead to death as was the case of Air France Flight 447 which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

Cognitive Tunneling

When things are automated, our brains don’t have to monitor our environment. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, likens this scenario to the dimming of a spotlight representative of the brain’s attention span. Strayer says this spotlight can go “wide and diffused, or tight and focused.” When an emergency strikes that spotlight goes fully bright all of a sudden and gets confused on where to focus so it shines on what’s directly in front of it.

For instance, when a plane on autopilot suddenly requires pilots to fly it manually, pilots need to abruptly switch their focus from a relatively relaxed state to that of panicked focus. Failure to transition from the former to the latter state results in cognitive tunneling, a “mental glitch” caused by automation.

Cognitive tunneling then is misplaced focus. But is there a way to fix this? How can we correct mental glitch?

Mental Models and Stories

An example that’s often cited about how cognitive tunneling can be avoided is Qantas Flight 32. The flight experienced an uncontained engine failure—21 of its 22 aircraft systems were damaged. Despite this, all the crew and passengers arrived safely on the ground after an emergency landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport. It’s been called “the most damaged Airbus A380 ever to land safely.” 

It was a very serious incidence but one that was definitely handled very well. How did the pilot and crew do it? One thing: Before each flight, Captain Richard de Crespigny would brief the crew on possible problems and what to do. In other words, the captain was drilling mental models during each pre-flight session so that when an emergency situation does arise, all of them would be ready; each member of the team would know what to do. 

Whether we realize it or not, we tell ourselves stories all the time. These mental images provide our cerebral spotlights something to focus on, “always jumping around inside our heads.” As a result, these spotlights don’t dim. When we need to transition from relaxed to panicked states, we are not blinded by the glare, explains Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter at the New York Times. 

Mental Models and Learning Design

Designers and trainers can take advantage of the principles of mental models in their workshops and courses by asking story questions. The best type of questions to ask are open-ended queries.

“What if this happened to me? What would I do?”

“How did it happen and why?”

Open-ended questions help learners to delve deeper into each story or event by placing themselves in it. These questions aid learners in creating mental images about the unfolding event and what would happen if they go with solution A or solution B and so on.

Revisiting mental models also advances learners’ experience since the brain doesn’t seem to differentiate between reality and imagination. Mental models have been helping agents of the U.S. Department of State create alternate realities to better handle real-life events.


Stories are very useful for more than just entertaining or sharing a lesson. They can also be used to help learners direct their focus on what matters most. By creating mental models, the brain’s focus doesn’t power off but instead transfers from one alternate reality to the next. Since the brain can’t tell imagination and real life apart, mental models help learners gather experience.


Jeff Wise. What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447. Popular Mechanics, Dec 6, 2011

Charles Duhigg. Computer Says: Stop Relying on the Computer. Wired Magazine, July/Aug 2016 issue

Charles Duhigg. The Power of Mental Models: How Flight 32 Avoided Disaster., March 16, 2016

Tip #42: Provoking Learners with Story Questions

Tip #99: Changing Behavior by Advancing Experience and Stories

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome! Sharing your comments is very valuable learning experience for me and others. Thanks!