Brain Based Safety

Risk understanding (part 3)

This is the third and final message in the risk awareness series. The first was about risk intuition and the second about its emotional component. In this particular message the cognitive component plays a crucial role. Risk understanding is the result of a system of six brain functions. These functions are further elaborated here. The system is special because logic and feeling are linked here. If one of them is missing, risk awareness is below par.

The 6 brain functions

If we look at the cross-section of the brain, we see 6 brain functions arranged as a horseshoe. One end lies deep in our emotional system, where fear, among other things, is generated. The other end is situated in the forehead, the center of understanding the world. Messages are sent back and forth via large information highways. There are intermediate stations on that highway that can process messages and then send them on again.

Station 1, 2 and 3: Risk sensitivity

Let’s start where the previous post in this series ended, the description of risk sensitivity. There are three stations at the start of the highway that work together frequently. The first is the Almond core, which operates the alarm bell of our brain (1). Next we have the Seahorse, which maintains a danger archive (2). This area also takes care of location determination, which keeps track of where risks are (3). Fear, object and location form a strong trinity in the awareness of risks. Hence the advice to do a Last Minute Risk Analysis always on location. Doing this, a part of our working memory will be reserved for risk awareness and this will be directly linked to the circumstances. The chance that we work more safely increases considerably as a result.

Station 4: Autobiographical memory

The 4th station on the information highway is the autobiographical memory. This area (Posterior Cingulate Cortex) keeps track of our personal experiences. This concerns questions such as “did I encounter this risk before?” and “how did it end then?” The alarm bell can be amplified by the activation of negative reminders of that risk. Conversely, the power of the alarm bell can also be weakened by habituation. The more positive the experiences are around the expiration of a risky event, the more habituation increases. Due to this principle we can get used to almost every danger. That is why employees who work in the same environment for a long time, gradually become less sensitive to the risks of the task. It explains why old hands in the trade gradually become more accident prone.

Reactivating risk awareness

A good way to prevent habituation is to change tasks. This is not always possible. Reactivation can also be established by seeing / discussing a possible wrong outcome of a risky event. Toolboxes can be used for this. We can measure whether a message has an impact via the electrical voltage on the skin (Galvanic Skin Response). It suddenly increases as soon as we see an image of an injury. A subtle amount of blood can thus contribute to the maintenance of risk awareness.

Station 5: Test on open ends (Anterior Cingulate Cortex)

in neurobiology, the 5th station is known as the ACC. It has a triple task. It looks at the past and sorts relevant experiences and information. In addition, it scans the current activities for risks. Finally, it examines our near future plans with the aim of being well prepared.

Aversion to risks

This area considers any risk as an activity with an uncertain outcome. It doesn’t like such activities. It wants to quickly empty our backpack of the past and be well prepared for the near future. It warns us if something is wrong or if there are weaknesses in our plans. If you, at the moment you leave the house, are doubting whether you have everything with you, the ACC is at work. We then unconsciously know that something is missing, we just don’t know what. If during dinner we suddenly realize that we have overlooked something at work, then this area is also at work.


The ACC benefits from rest, periods in which no new information needs to be processed. Then it’s time to look back and save the most relevant information. At rest, there is also an opportunity to go through plans. During a break, this area already starts to prepare for work. This of course happens on an unconscious level. Therefore, before taking a break, first discuss what you are going to do after the break. Then the ACC will already prepare the work. The coffee machine is a great invention. While the employees relax, the ACC will set to preparing to work. During the night, all brain functions go into a low activity mode apart from the ACC. This is the only brain function that continues to work. It then processes all the stimuli of the day and stores the most important ones. What is not saved when you wake up is discarded. Poor sleep and forgetfulness therefore go hand in hand.

Station 6: Risk management (Ventromediale Prefrontale Cortex, VMPFC)

The 6th station is located directly above the eyes. The VMPFC comprises a large number of functions that are important for understanding and feeling risks. This area wants to understand what is happening around us. Here an image of reality is constructed. The better we can estimate what the world looks like and what happens there, the greater the chances that we can respond adequately. The VMPFC can relate observations to each other, reason logically and draw conclusions. It can detect potential risks in processes and adjust behavior accordingly. This requires knowledge of the situation. Learning to understand where in the process the risks lie and how you can recognize them, is therefore an important part of the onboarding training.

What does the anatomy of risk understanding teach us?

Learning to recognize and manage risks is a dynamic process. Working safely first requires learning risks. Unfortunately, you can lose that risk awareness again, through the process of habituation. Rest and sleep are important elements, both for storing relevant information and for preparing work. Finally, good risk management is the result of a combination of knowledge and feeling. Without each other they are half as powerful. Do you ever wonder how it is possible that a rule, despite having been well explained repeatedly, is nevertheless being violated? Then start by asking whether the feeling component of risk awareness is in order. The word emotion comes from the Latin e-movere, meaning being moved. Knowledge of risks is necessary, but only when this is combined with emotion, do we take risks seriously into account.

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