19th Sep 2017

What were they thinking? – The Emotional Brain in Safety

Following an incident, you’ll often hear people say, “what were they thinking?”. This comment implies that the individual was consciously thinking and making logical choices. Based on neuroscience, we know that the majority of behaviour is driven by the emotional brain and not the logical brain. For this reason, we need to understand the brain and how it works.

Our brains are wired to survive and conserve energy. Decision making is either primarily a function of the logical brain, known as the Pre-Fontal Cortex (PFC), or the emotional brain known as the Limbic System. Conscious thinking consumes high levels of energy and the brain will, where possible, instinctively switch from ‘conscious thinking’ (PFC) to ‘automatic thinking’ (Limbic).

For example, in safety, a new task often requires a high level of thinking and the engagement of our PFC. Also, there is a healthy level of fear associated with doing the tasks which means we consciously scan for risks. Over time however, we get comfortable, feel safe and reduce our level of conscious thinking. The task is now executed mainly driven by the habitual part of our brain. In safety, this leads to complacency and normalisation of deviations.

Also, certain emotional states such as irritation, distraction, pressure and fatigue override logical and conscious choice. When these are present, the logical brain shuts down and behaviour is driven by the emotional, often reactive part of the brain.

The majority of behaviour is not logical. It is a function of how the brain works and emotional responses.

Rather than automatically judge behaviour, we need to understand how the brain works, what role the emotional brain plays and develop strategies with the brain in mind to ensure safe operations and a culture of healthy fear.

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The Sad Story of Safety Cultures and Rubik’s Cubes

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