Tuesday, August 14, 2012

40 minutes with your prefrontal cortex

Reading How We Decide. The chapter "The Uses of Reason" tells the story of United flight 232. It's a famous story in aviation circles.

A DC-10 airplane loses the engine in its tail, then loses all hydraulics. Hydraulics enable control of the plane. Almost no control in the cockpit can be operated without hydraulics. The right wing keeps tilting down. The crippled plane follows a sine wave trajectory toward earth.

For about 40 minutes four pilots struggle to descend and maneuver the airplane so it can land. This situation is completely outside their experience and training. It is not supposed to happen, literally a one-in-a-billion situation.

They work together to come up with ideas and scenarios. A type of processing that happens in a specific area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The pilots know the odds of surviving this situation are not good. In fact, no one has ever survived a loss of flight controls. 296 people are heading toward a cornfield in Iowa at 250 miles per hour. They can only use engine power to maneuver the plane, which also means they can't slow down. They go against their instincts to apply thrust. By keeping cool and letting reason guide their choices, together they reach the best possible outcome.

A few thoughts:
  • On a much smaller scale the accident I was in demanded the same kind of processing. None of us had experienced a dust storm like the one that day. The driver had no prior experience of the situation. When did it become riskier to keep moving forward than to stop on the freeway?
  • When we did stop, the prefrontal cortex was where my head hit the seat.
  • Listening to Denny Fitch, how can you fail to be impressed by the amount and quality of training pilots receive? That's how they problem-solve. They practice what to do when things fail. In contrast, very little training is required to drive freeways at high speeds. 
  • A new collaborative model for decision making was used. It's been rolled out widely since then. The guiding principle is, it takes every bit of human capital to manage a crisis. Previously, the captain made all decisions.
  • Insurance companies, doctors, colleagues, lawyers, friends, family. There are lots of ways we humans fail each other. It's helpful to watch Denny Fitch: humble, intelligent, professional.
  • The four pilots survived. They all suffer from survivor's guilt. Even though they did their best, they felt responsible. Guilt probably lives nearby, in the orbitofrontal cortex.
After the fact, the flight data went into a simulator and 2 expert pilots tried for a better outcome. Each  pilot took 29 attempts to even get to the runway without crashing. The flight crew of United 232 had only one attempt.


  1. It's interesting that they had the two other pilots do the simulation separately. You'd think having a group in there would be better? Or at least more similar. I can't watch this here at work, but I'll watch it at home.

    1. Not sure what the reasoning was, but I think they wanted to measure exactly how extraordinary this solution was. This can help the survivors a lot, too. Denny Fitch and others couldn't stop second-guessing themselves, wishing there had been a way to save everyone.

      There's a movie with Beau Bridges and Rosa Perez - Fearless. He re-enacts the plane crash with her, by crashing his Volvo into a wall. Showing her she couldn't have saved the child on her lap.

      There's a lot of people in my life who have turned away, as if turning away makes the brain injury go away. They'd probably rather believe I'm faking it. Unfortunately, nothing forces them to see the truth. People who feel tremendous guilt are forced to examine the event in a detailed way so they can let go.