An Cosantóir

Dec 2018 Jan 2019

An Cosantóir the official magazine of the Irish Defence Forces and Reserve Defence Forces.

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Page 28 of 47 THE DEFENCE FORCES MAGAZINE | 29 M ind wandering can be defined as any thought unrelated to the immediate task in hand. A first- line operator is someone carrying out a task that requires vigilance for safety of life; in the Defence Forces examples would be landing an aircraft, berthing a ship, driving a vehicle, carrying out a foot patrol overseas, to mention but a few. Numerous studies show that mind wandering is very harmful to task per- formance and awareness of the exter- nal environment. It leads to a reduction in analysing the task environment and in errors of sustained attention. First- line operators will fail to notice infre- quent targets by engaging in automatic processing rather than focused atten- tion processing. This seriously impairs situational awareness, decision making and problem solving; all critical skills in the handling of a complex emergency. Mind wandering can also render a first-line operator prone to the 'startle effect', hampering an effective response. This played a major role in the crash of Air France flight AF447 in 2009, killing all 228 people on board. In 2010/11, nearly 2,800 Americans were killed in automobile accidents while mind wandering, according to analysis by an insurance company. To understand mind wandering you must first understand memory. The accepted model comprises three linked systems: sensory, working and long-term memory. The sensory system holds infor- mation for brief periods of time; working memory contains our conscious aware- ness but has a limited ability to store information; long-term memory holds a large amount of information consisting of acquired knowledge and stored life ex- perience. Situational awareness requires long-term memory information to be transferred to the working memory. It is generally accepted that mind wan- dering is a loss of executive control by the working memory, which can occur when working memory demands are low and current performance is less important. Research shows that mind wandering affects everyone from 30% to 50% of their waking moment. To determine if you lack awareness of mind wandering, ask yourself if you have ever experienced it when driving. In 2015 an AA motoring survey received 27,662 responses to this question; 70% could not recall the final part of their journey. While at first glance those who cannot recall their journey appear most at risk, they are not; research has shown awareness is key to limiting the effects of mind wandering. Therefore, if you answered 'no', then you may lack awareness of the effect and are most at risk of responding poorly to an unexpected event. Other factors influencing mind wander- ing include stress, boredom, fatigue and chaotic environments; all common in military operations. Mind wandering can allow first-line operators to disconnect from the environment to manage stress and provide protection against traumatic events. It can be used intentionally to relieve boredom or to allow the mind to rest in anticipation of future high cogni- tive load events. Combined with this, the working memory can also disconnect attention from perception, allowing the consciousness to focus on problem solv- ing and creativity as well as on future planning relevant to the first-line opera- tor's personal current circumstances. Mind wandering while on active duty could have significant consequences in a combat zone. Research conducted in 2015 on American military personnel training for deployment to Afghanistan found that mindfulness training reduced mind wandering significantly. The troops in- volved found mindfulness training made a significant difference to incidences of mind wandering, and recommended that it be included in all military training. First-line operators who are attentive, co-operate, and share information are less likely to make errors or have accidents. Mind wandering has also been found to decrease when first-line operators focused on concentration, successfully performed enjoyable tasks, or when they felt happy. Forming specific plans to deal with unful- filled goals has been shown to also lead to a reduction in mind wandering. To reduce the effects of mind wander- ing, team work, maintaining a moderate cognitive workload, awareness and mind- fulness training are all proven to work. The challenge for the Defence Forces is to identify if there is risk and if so, to deliver effective training for personnel, leading to safer operations.

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