“Brain farts” and “goofs” are no joke. They can cost lives and livelihoods. A new study suggests some human error can be predicted. As predictable events can sometimes be prevented, it is no stretch of the imagination to see that the surprise findings could lead to ergonomic measures for improving safety, efficiency and productivity in the workplace.
The study by researchers’ at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research in Southampton, England, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April and reported in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.
The team conducted MRI scans of people while they performed a repetitive task. A lead author in the study, Stefan Debener, said a change in brain activity started about 30 seconds before an error was made in some cases. He described the result as surprising. "It’s new because up to now the common view was that errors came out of the blue."
The researchers wrote that one area of brain activity prior to an error is the default mode region, a part of the brain that’s usually engaged when a person is relaxing. This gives rise to the interpretation that dull, repetitive work can lull some workers into mistakes. The findings give some scientific weight to the concept of "mind-numbing work."
It follows that if lapses can be predicted, even by just a few seconds, the potential harm from the lapse could also be prevented.
Dr. Debener says one possible application for the findings is "to create monitoring devices to warn people before committing errors on the job." This early-warning system, estimated to be 10 to 15 years away from realization, would take the form of a head covering worn by workers that is wirelessly linked to an electroencephalograph. The EEG would monitor a worker’s brain activity and trigger a you’re-about-to-screw-up alarm if the appropriate brain patterns emerge.
Potential candidates for monitoring include airport security screening workers and air traffic controllers. These perform repetitive tasks while focused on a screen, which is similar to what the study subjects were asked to do.
Sources: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; Globe & Mail