Imagination: A Preview of Life's Coming Attractions

No matter how much money you spend upgrading your instrument panel with a new GPS flight computer and maybe EFIS, by far the most advanced computer system in your cockpit is still your own brain. In previous posts I detailed some of the incredible functions of our brain and how we can maximize our brain’s performance, or how we can be led astray by the natural tendency of our brain to react to stress and filter out noise.

With all this as background, let’s talk about the most advanced function of this wonderful computer in our heads, our imagination. Imagination, or as the neuroscientists call it, abstract cognitive reasoning, is unique to the human brain and requires the highest levels of intelligence and computing power of all our brain’s numerous functions. Neurologists even have a test for it – the Abstract Reasoning Test, which has the very apt acronym, “ART.” The critical importance of imagination to pilots is that it is the essence of Situational Awareness, the ability to take all the information at hand and construct a likely outcome in the near future and then make plans to deal with it.

Our creative powers of imagination occupy the central role in achieving success in every field. Imagination is the driving force behind the advancement of humans, from knuckle-dragging cave dwellers to pilots, space travelers, and web surfers. Imagination is a power beyond just creative visualization; it is the ability to form mental images of things that are not there and have not happened. Even more, imagination is the ability of our brain to use “real” information from our senses to construct novel mental scenes of events that are likely to happen soon; true Level III SA. Einstein said it best: “Imagination is everything, it is a preview of life’s coming attractions.” Preview is absolutely the perfect word – “to view before it actually happens.” Our imagination gives us the ability to (pre)view situations from different perspectives before anything actually occurs, and enables us to mentally “live” alternate outcomes from past and present scenarios and explore infinite possibilities for the future. This is the ultimate construct of SA and we can prove it with a well-known aviation accident. Think back to one of America’s most gut-wrenching aviation tragedies, the loss of Apollo 1 and the death of our three mission astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

The accident occurred during tests on the launching pad leading up to our first Apollo Moon mission that was scheduled for February 21, 1967. It was only a dry run on the ground but problems arose almost immediately. Grissom entered the spacecraft first and hooked up his oxygen supply. Over his microphone he described a strange odor, and the crew stopped to check their spacesuit oxygen hoses. Abruptly, instruments showed a surge in oxygen flow and seconds later, one of the astronauts, probably Roger Chaffee, announced almost casually over the intercom: “Fire, I smell fire.” Two seconds later, Astronaut White’s voice was more urgent: “Fire in the cockpit!” Procedures for an emergency escape began but in practice sessions the crew had never accomplished the routines smoothly. First, White had to move forward so Grissom could lower White’s headrest. That was so White could then reach above and behind his left shoulder to actuate a ratchet-type device that would release the first of a series of latches and eventually pop open the hatch. It never happened. Firemen arrived within minutes but tragically it was all too late. Still strapped into their seats, all three men were dead.

NASA appointed a review board headed by astronaut Frank Borman to carry out an inquiry into the causes of the disaster. Their conclusion was, “In its devotion to the many difficult problems of space travel, the Apollo team failed to give adequate attention to certain mundane but equally vital matters of crew safety.” That’s it? Really? The Senate wouldn’t accept this conclusion either and held their own hearings, calling Borman as a witness. He testified on April 11, 1967. In a moment of incredulous disbelief during the Q and A, New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson asked Borman, “How on earth could this have happened? How could three men die, sitting on the ground, in a simple test of a space capsule?” At first, Borman seemed lost for words and didn’t answer. After a few moments of thought he said, “Senator, it was a failure of imagination. No one ever imagined this; we just didn’t think that such a thing could ever happen so we never planned for it.” NASA never got to Level III SA to make an escape plan for the near future if the astronauts needed to make a quick evacuation.

We plan a lot better in GA flight training for a similar scenario of a cockpit fire. One of the steps instructors drill in anticipation of a forced off-field landing is to unlatch and open the doors. This is done in case the aircraft frame is bent on impact so, unlike the outcome of the tragic Apollo I crew, you don’t get trapped inside a burning cockpit – Level III SA. Another example I cited last month was to use your imagination to program all those advanced devices you paid so much for on your cockpit panel; fly with your GPS on the “nearest airport” page so Level III SA, your escape plan for the near future, is as simple as pushing the “direct to” key.

Human imagination is a fascinating product of multiple sensory and cognitive areas of our brain. According to neuroscience researchers, imagination comes from our brain’s “mental workspace,” a widespread neural network that coordinates activity across several places in the brain. These areas of the brain consciously manipulate symbols, images, ideas, and theories to construct imaginary scenes that are not really there. In a recent study, volunteers were asked to conjure up in their minds specific visual shapes, and then mentally combine them into more complicated figures. Others had to create complex images in their minds, and then mentally dismantle them into their separate parts. With the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) the researchers measured the volunteers’ brain activity that showed the visual cortex – the part of the brain that processes imagery – to be the most active area involved in driving these mental manipulations.

It turns out that the nerve impulses that form our “real” reality flow in different directions in the brain than our imagined “reality.” The visual information from “real” events that the eyes see flows “up” into the processing areas of the brain, butimagined images flow “down” from advanced cortical areas to join signals from our senses. This part of the brain then integrates sensory information from our eyes and from parts of the brain that get impulses from touch and sound and assembles the “real” and the “pretend” information into one unified concept. This is the neurological basis of advanced SA, combining information from our senses about the present and blending them with intelligent predictions of the near future that is essentially the “pretend” information shown in this study.

The study also found that several other brain regions appeared to be involved in manipulating imaginary shapes, including the pre-frontal cortex, which houses some of our most advanced cognitive functions. The results supported theories of imagery and imagination to suggest that neuronal signals made by “imagined” stimuli could blend in with signals generated by “real” stimuli to make robust multisensory constructs. Professor Henrik Ehrsson, the principal investigator, said, “This study establishes that the sensory signals generated by one’s imagination are so strong they can change one’s real-world perceptions.” Cool stuff, exactly what we are calling advanced Level III SA.

Abstract reasoning that forms our imagination is the basis of Endsley’s Level III situational awareness; the ability to take existing facts, process the data, and blend it all into a prediction of the likely outcome in the near future. As we saw last month, Level III SA accounts for a relatively small number of aviation accidents, but I think it’s not that small, it’s just hard to measure and is likely a much larger percent. Level III SA represents the total synthesis of all the other factors of the first two levels of SA into a complete, operational, and usable plan and therefore is the best marker of true SA. So fly safe, and use your wonderful imaginative skills to predict the coming attractions in your future. Imagine what might happen soon, what that means to the safety of your flight, and what you can plan a few minutes ahead to deal with the possibilities that might become your new “real” reality.

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS
Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in principles of aviation safety and has adapted those lessons to healthcare and industry for maximizing patient safety and minimizing human error. He also writes and teaches pilot and patient safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery/surgical critical care and general surgery. Dr. Stahl holds an active ATP certification and a 25-year member of the AOPA with thousands of hours as pilot in command in multiple airframes. He serves on the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors and is a published author with numerous peer reviewed journal and medical textbook contributions. Dr. Stahl practices surgery and is active in writing and industry consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related Articles