Budd Davisson, Flight Training

When There's More Than Your Brain can Handle

There’s little argument that the human brain is a wildly capable, magical machine that is so untapped, we seldom use more than a small percentage of its capabilities. That’s the good news. The bad news, is that the brain has such a pronounced spool-up time, when introduced to new situations, that it often takes practically nothing to cause it to freeze up leaving us with nothing but a blank screen to look at.

That’s what training is all about. Ita function is to gently get the brain up to speed so it is capable of receiving and comprehending new data and then using that comprehension to do something with it. That’s all well and good but it doesn’t change the fact that at the very beginning of any new learning experience, there are times when you might as well have a cranium full of Silly Putty.

Because the brain takes a while to warm to a new set of circumstances, there is a period of time where it is struggling with the new input. If you’ll think back, you’ll realize a classic example of brain overload was the first time you came in to make a landing. There you were, strapped into a tiny tin box hurtling at the ground at what seemed like a ridiculous speed. Only a few days earlier, movement in the third dimension had been something you’d only seen on Star Trek, and you had been just a normal person with normal expectations of what you could do in normal situations. Having a runway hurtling at you was not normal. Being expected to land an airplane was not normal. Your ears were hearing words from your instructor “Hold a nose attitude that gives you 65 mph and put down another notch of flaps.” Your brain, however, only received about every third word and could make no sense of any of them.

While he was talking to you, you were trying to remember which controlled the speed, throttle or nose? And that damn runway was still rushing at you. The air seemed alive and the airplane was moving up and down, right and left. The instructor was droning away as if he was on verbal auto pilot. Amazingly, he actually expected you to be listening, “...notice how the runway numbers appear to be moving towards you indicating...” What runway numbers? To you the top of the windshield was blue and the bottom was brown. Past that, all detail was lost on you.

That feeling of everything rushing into your brain but having none of it make sense lasts for only a short time in any new situation, but it is very real and effects just about everyone to certain a degree. In those kinds of situations, the brain does it’s version of what your eyes are supposed to do when looking at one of those pictures in which a million dots suddenly transform themselves into an image. Your eyes focus short and nothing is in focus. Your brain does the same thing when it is assaulted with too much sensory input. It is seeing everything but nothing is in focus. We call that the “fog factor.” You’re seeing it all, but can’t pull individual pieces of information out and make them mean anything.

In a flight training situation it is only necessary that you know the fog factor exists and that some times in your training, your brain cursor is going to freeze up and you’ll have to back off for a few minutes to re-boot your brain. The most efficient way to accelerate your way through brain fog is to push for a little while, then land and go home and think about it. Nothing clears up the fog faster than some out-of-cockpit introspection. A pilot who thinks about his flying at night, always come back the next day better than he left.

When you’re learning to fly, it’s important you know this kind of thing is going to happen, if nothing else than because it helps keep your frustration and apprehension levels down. If you finish an hour feeling as if everything is beyond you and “...I just can’t do this,” but you know the inability to comprehend is a temporary thing, you won’t be nearly as discouraged. If brain overload wasn’t temporary, every student would drop out after the first hour and aviation would have ground to a halt on the beach at Kitty Hawk.

It’s also important the instructor know what’s happening to you so he doesn’t push too hard, trying to cram too much into a brain that’s already overflowing. A sensitive instructor will pick up on that. If he doesn’t, it’s important you tell him. Just say, “Hey, this is sensory overload for me. Let’s do it one more time and call it quits for the day.”

Pushing too hard when the fog is too thick inevitably promotes frustration in both the student and the instructor.

Being aware of your own fog factor can be useful to you in training because it’s going to come and go as you get into different areas.

The fog bank will probably roll in for the first time the instant you crawl into the cockpit and are expected to do something intelligent. The environment is strange and at first the panel will look wildly exotic and indecipherable. Once it’s been explained (“That’s the speedometer, that’s the how-high gage...”) it’ll all make sense. One of the best possible things you can do at this point is to spend some solo time just sitting in the airplane while it’s tied down. Let the environment and the sight picture out the windshield soak into your brain and become a subliminal part of your thinking. Far too many students only get into the cockpit when its time for a lesson at which point the environment gets much more intense because of the presence of the instructor and the aircraft movement. You need solitary time during which you just sit there and look around the cockpit. You can try to memorize instrument placement by closing your eyes and pointing to the individual instruments, but even that’s not important. The important thing is that you sit there until the cockpit loses its “strangeness.” You want it to become a place in which you are comfortable and can make your brain work more efficiently. Somewhere in the first three hours of instruction you should spend a couple of half hour sessions just sitting in the cockpit. To make things even better, cockpit-sitting is free!

The next time you’ll wander into a serious mental fog bank will probably be when introduced to stalls for the first time. Depending on your instructor’s approach, you may or may not flash quickly through this fog and into the clear air of understanding. A lot has to do with how well he has prepared you verbally on the ground and how well he has described what you’re going to be feeling, seeing and hearing. It’s important you know what the sensations will be ahead of time so they don’t trip you up mentally and set the fog into motion. If he is one of those guys or gals who decide at the last minute to tack stalls on to the end of a lesson, you can almost count on a period during which your brain is screaming “Hey, what the hell is that?”. If your instructor is prone to demonstrating things before explaining them thoroughly, point out that it’s easier for you if he gives you more briefing so you brain isn’t struggling to catch up. If you don’t tell him, he’ll never change the way he approaches your learning curve. Once you’ve gotten comfortable as a pilot, you’ll have a difficult time remembering how it was at the very beginning and the instructor is the same. He has to be reminded has easy it is to get overloaded at the beginning.

You’ll get this brain-behind-the-curve feeling a number of times at the beginning of different phases of your training. The most important thing to remember is that you’ll go through the fog fairly quickly and not to let it affect your enthusiasm. Sometimes it is the fog factor that leads to those well known learning plateaus, where, for an hour or two, it seems as if you can’t do anything right.

Even after you’re a licensed pilot, the fog factor is bound to revisit you at various times. Every new airplane or experience has the potential of generating mental fog. Certainly the first time you find yourself encountering serious weather and battling with both the decision to go back and determining exactly where “back” is, you’ll be fighting your brain to keep it from fogging over. If you go for a tailwheel endorsement, you may find the first half hour to cause the fuzzies to attack your thought processes. Same thing when you start flying instruments, or aerobatics, or anything that puts you in position to have a ton of new information hit you at one time.

Having your brain fog over is simply a fact of life in any learning experience. The only people who don’t experience the fog factor are those who never try anything totally new and wouldn’t that be a boring life?