Pilot’s Brain Shutdown – Is there a Solution?


5 minutes to read

Pilot’s brain is where we are focusing, once again.

In the previous article, we read that the brain can enter a state of full consciousness, ”the zone” or else called the flow state. It is a state in which you both feel and perform your best. Surely, it is a condition you would like to find yourself every day, either in the air or on the ground.

Flow is the state, that when you train your self to enter, the best outcome of every procedure will occur.

On the other hand, we have the fight or flight response as they call it or temporary brain shut-down, and it is a condition very often met in our lives, which can certainly occur while flying, in any occasion that something is abnormal, i.e. warnings, indications, moderate to severe turbulence, sudden changes in weather etc.

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It would be perfect if there was a way to be calmer and more focused during stressful times. For your  Safety, for your performance, for your unique moments.

What scientists were looking for, finally occurred. While in the flow state, the human brain is less susceptible to shut downs (fight or flight) in cases of ”threats”.

Ok, let me explain it a little bit:

According to Steven Kotler, Author of The Rise of Superman, ”The two states are linked. Risk heightens focus and flow follows focus. This means that the fight-or-flight response primes the body—chemically and psychologically—for the flow state’‘. In simpler words, in the upper level of stress lies the flow state. You can be in a stressful condition, but with your brain functioning at high levels, without loss of cognitive functions.

Just take a look in the following diagram. You can be at the top, with a clear thinking!

Stress and Flow aviation
Stress and Flow, source web

>Maybe you remember a few weeks ago a helicopter accident (Read here) that occurred near Wellington with a BK117. The pilot Rick Lucas, who escaped unharmed when asked by the local media, answered:

“I didn’t panic. I almost went into some sort of state that allows you to think logically and consciously. I looked for the seat belt, found it and…”

Human Performance
When in flow the possibilities to stay alive increase


Α real confession of the flow state. While in a stressful condition, he managed to put his thoughts under control and exit the helicopter. From the previous article, you learned about some of the flow triggers. Actions you take in order to enter the ”flow state”. Here are some more:

Flow triggers

Intensely focused attention

Time for laser focus. Flow requires your full concentration. During the one task that you want to accomplish, there is no place for second thoughts. Remove from your mind all the unnecessary “data”. Be 100% present.  There is no room in your brain to deal with irrelevant “thoughts”. Then you will be able to accomplish your task very efficiently. In the case of emergency, your brain will respond way better because of flow.

Α quick and easy example for you to see. Let’s say that you don’t know your electric system very well and while you are inbound to land, you see a warning indication. You take the time to think over and over about the indication and this might confuse your brain and make another mistake too or miss something(ATC, traffic…). Also, you disrupt your flow. If you were well prepared and knew exactly what might have caused this indication to light, your brain would respond faster, knowing what is happening and surely give way to your brain to focus on dealing with the indication. In simple words, the go/no-go decisions come way faster.

Clear goals

Get to know exactly what you are doing. Be present and stop worrying about what’s going to happen next. Every step you are taking is critical and must be clear. Know your maneuvers, your patterns, your procedures, know exactly the steps of the task you are dealing with to enter the flow.

Immediate feedback

If you have clear goals in mind, then immediate feedback can teach you how to improve. To make you better. Shortening the distance from cause and effect is actually better for your brain to stay focused. If this ”distance” is big, your brain must disconnect from the present and start working on finding new solutions. Let’s see what Steven Kotler wrote about feedback:

“This automatic feedback is another reason extreme athletes have found flow so frequently, but what if we’re interested in pulling this trigger without help from the laws of physics? No mystery here. Tighten feedback loops. Put mechanisms in place so attention doesn’t have to wander. Ask for more input. How much input? Well, forget quarterly reviews. Think daily reviews. Studies have found that in professions with less direct feedback loops—stock analysis, psychiatry, and medicine—
even the best get worse over time. Surgeons, by contrast, are the only class of physician that improve the longer they’re out of medical school. Why? Mess up on the table and someone dies. That’s immediate feedback”.

Flying an airplane/helicopter has a lot of procedures were immediate feedback is present. When immediate feedback lies in your routine, flow is in the corner. Learn from this. Become even better.


Flow is your weapon against brain shut down. Against fight or flight which causes the brain’s frontal lobe lobotomy (clear thinking inhibition). Extreme CAUTION: The fight or flight response is an ancient instinct. It is a brain’s response to protect you. It derives from thousands of years of human evolution and it is hardwired into your brain. It cannot be commanded or controlled. However good preparation and being in the flow state will decrease its potency!

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  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)
  • Steven Kotler The Rise of Superman, (2014)