Do Aeroplanes Have Minds ?

A pilot flying a large commercial airliner has a lot of things to think about at once. There are MD 80many different sources of constantly changing information to take into account; speed dials, altimeters, navigational equipment, and the view from the cockpit, which is especially difficult to read when landing, when there are runway signals and markers, and constant instructions from air traffic control. So how does the pilot remember all of this information in order to land the plane? She doesn’t. The aeroplane remembers for her.

Edwin Hutchins, a US cognitive psychologist, spent hundreds of hours observing pilots and co-pilots in the cockpits of commercial airliners, including the McDonnell Douglas MD80 (pictured). In particular, he observed the complex set of processes involved in landing an aeroplane…and the crucial role played by a tiny piece of plastic. As an aeroplane descends to land, the shape of the wing needs to alter as the plane slows down. Aeroplane wings have flaps and slats which are retracted for high altitude flight to make the plane more aerodynamic (a so-called ‘clean wing’). At lower speeds and altitudes, the narrow wing does not generate enough lift to keep the plane airborne. So as the plane slows, the pilot must release the flaps in a complex sequence, dictated by the plane’s speed but also its weight at different points in the descent.

Hutchins explains how the pilot and co-pilot calculate in advance exactly when the wing must change shape, and set small plastic markers on the aircraft’s speedometers (the ‘speed bugs’). When the speedometer needle aligns with the marker, the pilot releases or alters the flaps. The relevant calculations are repeated at regular intervals by both pilots – constant cross-checking against different manuals and indicators prevents error. And it also means that the pilot, who is busy looking at the runway, does not have to remember when to release the flaps on landing …the little plastic ‘speed bug’ does the remembering for her. What Hutchins discovered was that the cognitive operations (or if you prefer, ‘thinking’) necessary to land the plane, are not all in the pilot’s head. Much of the thinking required is ‘stored’ in the planes instruments, or in the constant conversations between pilot and co-pilot. The pilot draws on the information as and when needed, but does not have to process, or remember, it all herself. So the cockpit remembers it’s speeds, and the plane lands safely.

What is important about this little story, is that it challenges our understanding of what a ‘mind’ actually is. Until very recently, mainstream Cognitive Psychology saw minds as little machines, little computers, sitting inside our heads. Thinking was understood as storing and processing information, like a computer. This new way of thinking about cognition suggests that much of the ‘computing’ – sorting abstract information – happens outside our heads. What the pilot is doing involves intuitive judgement from experience, not just number crunching. Brains are not computers. And social groups, interacting with instruments (charts, dials) can form a collective mind, capable of processing vastly more complex operations than one mind.

Interestingly, this is where Cognitive Psychology echoes insights from Transpersonal Psychology, which has long investigated collective consciousness, including things such as telepathy and communion experiences – the feeling, at moments of ‘peak’, or exceptional experience, that my mind is part of a bigger conscious whole. Until very recently, Cognitive Psychologists would have considered these explorations of non-normal states of awareness ‘flaky’ at best. This is beginning to change.

On our MA, we are especially interested in being part of a conversation between different approaches to Psychology, which have, in the past, moved in parallel lines – ‘scientific’ versus ‘humanistic’, ‘experimental’ versus ‘experiential’.  We explore how aeroplanes, and ships, can think, and how our conscious and unconscious minds are not neatly contained in our heads. In doing so, we draw on both conventional and decidedly unconventional approaches to Psychology – bringing them together in a truly Interdisciplinary Psychology.

Conrad Russell is Course Leader for MA Interdisciplinary Psychology

Hutchins, Edwin (1995) ‘How a Cockpit Remembers its Speeds’ Cognitive Science 19 (:265-288).


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