Pilot Performance – So you want better performance?


”No matter how much we have practiced, we are still susceptible to brain shut-down if our brain goes binary under pressure.” 

So why do we lose performance under challenging conditions? We were so well prepared for this flight, but at the end of the day, we were not satisfied with ourselves! ”If those distractions weren’t there, I would’ve landed better! I wasn’t myself!” It seems that an extra dose of stress has made our performance to deteriorate, even if we don’t realize it. 

Don’t worry, we are built this way! During stress, we lose our ability of clear thinking and judgment. Our awareness decreases and instantly, our performance declines. But luckily, there is a brain hack! Let’s see how the course of evolution has affected the reaction of the human brain under stress.                                

Evolution and the fight or flight response

The development of  the human society and technology has helped us overcome many stressful situations, however, a built in response in the human brain -called the fight or flight response- has played a major role in our survival.

The fight or flight response was originally discovered by Walter Cannon, a physiologist at Harvard University. Whenever we become aware of a threat, where we are physically or psychologically threatened, a built-in alarm system in our brain is triggered resulting in a release of powerful electrical signals and a variety of hormones. There is a powerful cocktail of hormones, consisting of adrenaline and cortisol among others, which have a powerful and widespread effect on our body’s biochemistry, physiology, and psychology giving us the extra strength and speed we need to deal with the threatening situation. We can either fight-deal with the situation- or flight -run away from it. The brain is forced to shut down a lot of  its ”thinking parts” which may disrupt our chances of survival, and command only fight or flight. 

The biological evolution of the human species was crucial for one reason. To help us survive. To protect us, in order to pass the advantageous genes to the next generation. And we still use the same survival mechanism, after 200.000 years and more. 

In modern societies, the stressful situations we confront are not similar to the ones our ancestors faced, like running away from a tiger for instance. A meeting with your boss,flying among heavy traffic, a lecture in your company for the new helicopter, a check ride, a bumpy flight, icing conditions or failing in exams -even though you were well prepared- are some of the situations where stress can doom your performance. Sometimes we perform well and other times not. We forget, panic and don’t have clear thinking.

In our daily routine, when it comes to stressful situations, the choice for the brain is fight or flight. You can either ”deal” with the threat or ”fly” away from it.

We are going to see how your brain reacts to this response and if it is sometimes good for you or not. But first let’s have a closer look at our ”engine”. 

The anatomy of brain

Let’s have a quick look at the anatomy of the human brain from the newest to the older.

  • Neo Cortex Brain

  • Limbic Brain

  • Reptilian Brain


Source web

Neo Cortex Brain: It is responsible for functions such as consciousness, sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning, language, imagination and more. Also, the frontal lobe which is responsible for attention, awareness, short-term memory and planning, lies in this area of the brain. Oh, yes we need a very functional frontal lobe!

Limbic Brain: The limbic brain, which contains hypothalamus and amygdala (also known as danger centers), is responsible for functions such as behavior, emotions -like fear and anger- and long-term memory. 

Reptilian Brain: The reptilian brain is responsible for vital functions such as heart rate, balance, and breathing. 

”Hold on a second, I am a pilot, not a biologist geek! I don’t care for all this info!” Well, understanding your brain is the best way to hack it!

The anatomy of fight or flight

When it comes to fight or flight response, the frontal lobe is forced to close. Keep that always in your mind.

Source WebThe frontal lobe, responsible for our consciousness and awareness can delay a judgment. Sometimes survival is so crucial that there is no time for delay. The frontal lobe is forced to shut down in order as we saw earlier for our brain to protect us.

But is this always good for you as a pilot? When you fly under stress lets say in an area with a lot of traffic, do you really want to de-energize your frontal lobe?

You definitely Not. That’s another reason why you are practicing emergencies and vital procedures or chair flying a lot. To respond immediately without the use of the frontal lobe. Probably because it’s not so functional at the time.

›When in stress, our awareness is blocked. We don’t understand that we are losing our frontal lobe. We tend to say ”I’m not stressed, I’m ok!” Actually, we’re not. Our frontal lobe (logic) is closed so we are unable to understand that we lobotomize ourselves, our breathing rate increases and our hands become sweaty.

The anatomy of a feeling

Suddenly a low RPM occurs. Your amygdala detects danger via your sensors (eyes on the indicator, different noise on ears) and transmits a signal to your heart causing an increase in beats of up to 140 – 150 bpm. Your breathing rate increases and your hands become sweaty. The change in your heart beat is transmitted again back to your amygdala, hippocampus, and motor cortex. A chemical reaction in the hippocampus caused by the amygdala, commands the fight or flight response and your frontal lobe, responsible for short memory tasks and awareness, is forced to shut down.

As Dr. Alan Watkins, founder of completecoherence, points out: ”No matter how much we have practiced we are still susceptible to brain shut-down if our brain goes binary under pressure.”

Become Better

There is a giant amount of research showing that breathing in and out the right way, can help you in challenging conditions and surely, limit the fight or flight response. Actually, this is not something new. Tactical breathing, as they call it, is the way soldiers are trained to maintain in a battle, in order to perform better in stressful conditions. Yes, a battle is one of these stressful situations. So pilots can also use it.

A good rhythm in breathing, transmits calm signals to the brain, ”forcing” it to a better performance with increased awareness, better decision making and preventing it from frontal lobe shut down. 

Learn the correct breathing pattern

Heart Rate Variability (Pic 1.1) or HRV, is the time interval between our heartbeats. This time can vary from interval to interval and the variation is on a scale of milliseconds. It’s not constant.

HRV – Pic 1.1 Source web

HRV is highly connected with the brain’s function as it can alter it at any time. When we are stressed A chaotic HRV (pic 1.2 upper image), transmits chaotic signals to the brain, forcing a frontal lobe shut down. When we are calm, a calm HRV (pic 1.2 lower image) transmits calm signals to the brain, preventing a frontal lobe shut down. We read before that the amygdala, (centers of fear and danger) transmit a signal to the heart to beat faster and the heart after the increase in its rhythm transmits back to the amygdala. This is were HRV change. You don’t want a chaotic HRV but a calm one. 

Pic 1.2 Source web

Breathing in and out the right way can alter your HRV. In stressful conditions maintaining a calm HRV is the best way to respond effectively to any task.

All you need to do is breath in for 4 seconds through your nose and hold for 2. Then breathe out through your mouth for 6 seconds and hold for 2. Practice it. In some cases you might read it as 4 seconds breath in, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds breath out, 4 seconds hold. There is a variety of techniques out there. They are all correct. Just remember here, that a smooth rhythm is the most important

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Nicholas A. Founder Enjoy flying / Private pilot / Helicopter Avionics Engineer
Coherence – (2014) ch2