Consciousness and safety
I have a mission. In a small country such as the Netherlands, about 100 people each year are killed on the roads due to mobile phone use. This means 100 families endure acute grief because a loved one never comes home again. I know from personal experience how painful this can be. Even more painful is the thought that these deaths are easy to prevent. The only thing that has to change is the recognition of the need for more self-knowledge amongst road users and more courage amongst policymakers. We need a change and this change can start with knowledge of the role which consciousness plays in behaviour and the translation of that knowledge into safety policy. That is the purpose of this post.
Definition of consciousness: the awareness of existence
First of all: what is consciousness? Here the simplest definition has been chosen: consciousness is the awareness of existence. Consciousness manifests itself in an awareness that one thinks, perceives, feels and acts. It is therefore something different than the activity of thinking, feeling, observing or acting itself. Consciousness may be better understood by comparing it with its counterpart: the autopilot.
What does the autopilot do?
The autopilot is a complex of brain functions which deals with thinking, observing, feeling and acting. All these functions act on an unconscious level. It may be difficult to imagine that even thinking and feeling happen in an unconscious way. So let’s use the example of the 100 families. They will see the images of their deceased and of how the accident happened again and again. They will feel anger and grief without having any control. Those thoughts and feelings are produced on an unconscious level. The consciousness can hardly master this process and only observe it.
Can the unconscious autopilot act safely?
That is certainly possible. An example from your own life can best illustrate this. You have probably had the experience where you drive home in a daydreaming mode. At a certain moment you arrive at your place and you suddenly think “Hey, I’m already there!”. There are no memories of the last part of the ride. Maybe you have missed a quarter of an hour from the movie of your life. The autopilot has driven 100% unconsciously without any interference from the consciousness. From this we can conclude that even in very complex and dangerous tasks the autopilot can act safely.
Why then can such an accident with a mobile phone happen?
Apparently the use of the mobile phone disrupts the functioning of the autopilot. This has to do with the fact that calling requires a high degree of awareness. When calling, you do not know what the other person is going to say. One must therefore constantly anticipate the unexpected. That is typically a task for consciousness. The question remains why the conscious and the unconscious processes cooperate so badly in this case.
Consciousness has no home base in the brain
To understand this, we must introduce a particularity of consciousness. Unlike the autopilot, the conscious does not have a physical basis in the brain. For its operation, the consciousness must borrow capacity from the autopilot. For example, if it wants to imagine something, it uses parts of the visual cortex of the brain. This can lead to problems if the autopilot is also occupied with a task that uses these same parts of the brain. During the ride there is competition for the use of the visual cortex. Due to this, the quality of both tasks deteriorates. Moreover, the visual cortex is also needed to gather feedback about driving behaviour. This feedback also deteriorates considerably, so the driver does not notice how badly he actually is driving. We call that a bad self-image. This causes fatal accidents.
But can’t we multitask?
Multitasking is possible as long as all tasks are carried out by the autopilot. This allows us to comb our hair and eat a sandwich without problems whilst driving a car with music in the background. This knowledge puts us on the wrong track. Human beings do not realize that telephoning is a task of another category that can’t be combined with the multitasking of the autopilot. It is precisely the combination of a conscious and an unconscious task that makes everything different.
Can’t the conscious multitask?
No. A special feature of the conscious is that it is indivisible. It can only focus on one thing at a time. If we carry out two conscious tasks at once, it appears that we quickly change from one task to another. Both tasks suffer from it. So even if the caller / driver occasionally looks around, his driving still deteriorates. The devastating consequences of this are known.
Why do policymakers show so little courage?
Compared to other problems in the world, the solution here is very simple. Stop operating the phone (and other devices like navigation) during traffic and prohibit others doing so. Unfortunately only very few politicians or company policymakers the guts to stand up and end this practice. The weakest of all the excuses is “we can’t check it”. Maybe their self-image is also obstructing. Perhaps they think that they themselves can call in a responsible way whilst driving. Moreover, it is easy if calling is allowed. After all, we spend many hours every day driving and that time can be put to good use. For that convenience the ones who have the potential to change this situation ignore the personal risk and the grief of those 100 families a year.
Is there more to say?
For safety experts the combination of phone and traffic is like low-hanging fruit which remains unpicked. The problem, however, appears on a much broader scale in the way we organise activities. The translation of these insights goes beyond a message in a blog. More information can be found in the book “Safe working behaviour with Brain Based Safety”.