Fast by Nature

We have discovered a fundamental and well-hidden human behavior. Dexterity sets humans apart from all other animals and is directly linked to the development of civilization. In this sense, dexterity has been closely connected to higher order cognitive functions rather than raw sympathetic responses. Contrary to this common belief, our research suggests that in dexterous challenges the sympathetic system appears to dominate behavior, producing 'fight or flight' responses that translate to fast (and counter-productive) pace of attempt. A metaphor will illuminate this paradoxical phenomenon.

A beginning driver is asked to build his skill so that he can safely negotiate a race circuit at Formula-1 speeds. A rational way of accomplishing this is to start with slow speeds and as the skill improves, ramp-up the speed accordingly. This evolution of skill and speed in lockstep is not what is happening in dexterous challenges exemplified by laparoscopic drills. Instead, humans lock on the fastest possible pace from the start and try to grow their dexterous skill to match this a priori speed. Using our metaphorical example, if the beginning driver adopts a similar behavior, he would maximize speed at the first trial and he would keep racing at this maximum speed time after time, until he could negotiate the circuit without any accidents. We assume here a cartoon-like (and indestructible) driver, because a real driver with this type of behavior would have been killed in his first race.

Obviously this procrustean strategy results in appalling error rates and sapping of confidence in the early stages of dexterity training. It is sheer will that eventually wins the day. A primate would have probably followed the same unwieldy strategy, driven by the same low level instincts. A major difference, however, is that humans are annoyingly patient and they persist until they see this through.

The pattern remained under the radar because the physiological response was not easily measurable and the associated behavioral response was not easily observable. Indeed, real-time and accurate measurements of sympathetic responses in field studies have not been feasible until recently. In addition to that, the macroscopic behavior of novices does not appear out of place and for this reason it does not attract any attention. Overall novices appear slow, not fast, because they commit many errors and spend a lot of time to recover from them. One has to measure the speed at which novices attempt to perform a dexterous task until they stumble (something non-obvious and difficult to quantify) to realize that they are frantic.

Why is this important?

Our discovery brings to the fore a natural human limitation and thus, opens the way for the development of methods to ameliorate its impact. Emphasis should be given to stress reduction in the early stages of dexterity training. Curtailing the driver of fast behavior, which stress is, will lead to slower attempt pace, reduction of errors, and boosting of confidence. We theorize that such strategy will lead faster to competency and through a more positive experience.

Reduction of stress requires the change of prevailing training philosophies in a number of critical professions, such as surgeons and pilots, where dexterity is paramount. This appears to be particularly urgent for new developments in these professions, such as laparoscopic surgery and UAV piloting, where surgeons and pilots operate via levers and video feeds. This unnatural mode of interaction that brings loss of proprioception presents a grand challenge which maximizes sympathetic responses and intensifies fast behavior.

Most important, our work redefines what true competency is and sheds light to the likely source of human errors in critical moments. True competency is the ability to flawlessly operate at the limit of neurophysiological latency, sympathetically provoked during the initial encounters with the dexterity challenge. If this is not the case, then in a critical moment (e.g., mayday) the pilot or surgeon, driven by acute resurgence of stress, will operate faster than he can afford leading to accident.

We published this work on March 6, 2012 in Scientific Reports

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation award IIS-0812526 entitled "Do Nintendo Surgeons Defy Stress?"

It was also supported in part by a grant from the Methodist Hospital entitled "Co-Design and Testing of Stress Quantification Experiments."