In the book, “Why We Make Mistakes,” Joseph Hallinan relates an amazing story about a 1972 airplane crash. When Captain Robert Lofe, the pilot of Eastern Airlines Flight 401, was making his final approach to Miami International Airport, he noticed something was wrong. He had put the landing gear down, but the indicator light didn’t come on.
He circled around and decided to level off to determine what the problem was.
He didn’t have a clue, so he called in the first officer. The first officer didn’t know either so they called in the flight engineer. Pretty soon no one was flying the plane, which was going lower and lower. The captain’s last words reportedly were “Hey! What’s happening here?”
The plane crashed into the Everglades and burst into flames, killing ninety-nine people, including Captain Loft. The reason for the crash was because the crew became so engrossed in a task that they lost awareness of their situation–all because of a $12 light bulb.
This experience of flying a perfectly good, well-functioning airplane into the ground is so common that engineers created a term for it. They call it controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT. The Air Force call being so engrossed in a task that you’ve lost your ability to fly the plane “task saturation,” which basically is a stress-based paralysis that comes from needing to do too many things at once.
It seems to me they were doing only one thing instead of too many things, and not what they needed to be doing! They were clearly not making a conscious choice about what the focus of their attention. It’s hard to imagine. But similar experiences happen every day.
The pilots were so engrossed with the problem of the landing gear indicator (or another concern), that they lost awareness of what they needed to do to stay alive. And not just for a second or two, like we do when we’re driving and spill or drop something or glance at a text.
I think emotionally sensitive people often have an ability to be very focused, but perhaps not always in effective or skillful ways, similar to what happens with the pilots. They too may not be consciously choosing where to focus their attenion. Sometimes they are focused in ways that aren’t helpful for them to live a contented life.
Three Components of Task Saturation
So back to task saturation. According to James Murphy (Business is Combat) task saturation has three components: Shutting Down, Compartmentalizing and Channelizing.
Shutting down is when someone simply flees an impossible situation, either mentally or physically. Compartmentalizing is when a person shuts down certain parts of the brain as a way of focusing on one thing at a time and ignores the essential big picture in the process. Channelizing means focusing on one thing to the total exclusion of all others.
These components come from the military’s study of fighter pilots, and all three describe experiences particularly familiar to emotionally sensitive people.
Compartmentalizing: Emotionally sensitive people are often excellent at being aware of the hurtful exchange with their neighbor and not being aware of the many people who love them. They may be focused on the pain they have experienced in the past to the exclusion of what is happening in the moment. They may also be focused on being angry at their boss and lose sight of how important the job is to their being able to pay the rent.
Shutting Down: Most emotionally sensitive people are familiar with shutting down. The stress of daily living can lead many to flee, to hide from the world in whatever way they can. Isolation and wearing masks can seem safe, but those and other ways of hiding become a prison. Many of the emotionally sensitive feel trapped by loneliness on one hand, and being overwhelmed with the stress and pain of life on the other.
Channelizing: Emotionally sensitive people are often skilled at paying attention to one issue and excluding others. Sometimes their emotions are so strong they don’t notice the difficulties others are having. They may be coping with feeling rejected and not consider that the other person was up all night because of a crying baby and is irritable. They may be so overwhelmed with their emotional experience that they aren’t realizing the difficulties experienced by others until later or until someone points out the details. Emotionally sensitive people can be very caring individuals, but when they are emotionally triggered, their focus narrows and they may only be able to pay attention to their own experience. At that point, they may appear to be surprisingly, unbelievably, selfish. This sometimes leads to shame and guilt for the emotionally sensitive.
Note to Readers: Your responses to the survey about living with emotional sensitivity have been so helpful. I am grateful so many of you have contributed. The more people who respond, the more information we will have to educate ourselves and others. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the questions on our new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post.
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From Psych Central's World of Psychology:
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Last reviewed: 27 May 2012