“Overlearning” Defeats the Startle Effect!

Intuitively, savvy educators know any skill achievement or learning progress, though gratifying, is very perishable. Especially in a high-stakes environment like aviation, deep learning, with consistency and reinforcement is essential. The impatient “got it and move on” attitude does not serve us well for enduring success and safety. We know from recent neurological research that “over-learning” more deeply embeds skills into our preconscious so these skills are available in times of stress and cognitive unavailability (panic). The implications for all learning are many, but for LOC-I deep practice prevents the “startle response” often central in these tragic accidents.  Recent deep practice at the edges of the flight envelope is essential to stay safe as aviators.

Neuroscience is just starting to understand the details of this learning process. You may have read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. We humans utilize largely parallel processors for understanding and controlling our world; one thoughtful and slow and one rapid and reactive (built on habits, previous experience, and heuristics).  The majority of our daily activities are handled automatically according to stereotyped reliable frames-of-reference. The usual example – driving home and passing the convenience store (I meant to stop at) is a phenomenon we are all familiar with. Typing fluidly on a keyboard, but unable to list the keys from left to right, is another. Pushing deeper, in times of severe stress (as in an aviation upset occurrence) our brain reaches down to the level of our last recent training to react correctly (or not). Sudden upset is not a time to “pause and ponder” but requires an immediate and correct response. This is where “over-learning” is essential.  We must practice often to have a proven technique available “on automatic” to avoid a startle and panic response.

The first system can be considered fast thinking. It is thinking done almost automatically or instinctively.- The second system is slow thinking.It involves thinking that is more complex and more mentally draining. It takes concentration and agency of the person to process the thoughts

Once we have successfully accomplished any new behavioral repertoire, it is neurologically essential to “stabilize” it by continued training well past the point of simple proficiency; “got it and onward” is not enough. Scientists call this technique “overlearning” and have observed it in every field where human skill mastery is critical; from first violin to martial arts. A recent study reveals that “overlearning” reinforces a skill and embeds it in a different part of the brain, installing it chemically in an entirely different way so it will not be overwritten by new learning. Critical piloting skills must be impervious to forgetting (and this is also why the initial imprint must be accurate) and fluidly available. This new study shows that if you stop training a skill as soon as it is first successful, the brain stays in its “ready-to-learn state” and the new skill is highly perishable. Reinforcement changes your actual brain state and chemistry. The study shows that repetitive training beyond the point of proficiency will “hyperstabilize” the skill and prevents”retrograde interference” from newer inputs. Fly safely (and practice often).


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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently flying 135 charter (again)

3 thoughts on ““Overlearning” Defeats the Startle Effect!”

  1. David, I really appreciate it when you provide these peeks “under the hood” of our brains. It helps explain why some things work (and why some things don’t )

  2. Hi Dave. I like your article on startle. The challenge with airplane upsets beyond the experience of the pilot involved is that it triggers another level of fidelity of startle that is both unexpected and compounded by the counterintuitive control response necessary, in many instances, to return to the desired airplane state. There is a talk on our site about extreme fear that you may enjoy. Again, good job!

    1. Thanks Paul. The enemy of all pilots is “startle” which biologically triggers panic and “tonic immobility.” This obviously can easily lead to LOC-I. Deep, appropriate training (APS) familiarizes pilots with the unusual visual/kinesthetic experience and embeds appropriate recovery techniques. But unfortunately, to be successful, this “rewiring” of the pilot brain must be deeply ingrained and frequently rehearsed (expensive and out of reach for many pilots)
      Our goal at SAFE is the same as APS (reduce LOC-I) but by necessity focuses more on prevention and targeting >all pilots< We hope to encourage superior pilot skills and "LOC inoculation" through "extended envelope" training - similar to the part 121 mandated training. This is available in Part 23 non-aerobatic aircraft and deployed through >better CFIs< (our SAFE mission!). Our first workshop was this fall at AOPA >http://bit.ly/CFI-PRO-KFDK< The next will be at Sporty's in June >http://safecfipro.org< Let's talk!

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