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New Ways to Predict Mindless Mistakes

Wouldn't it be nice to have a crystal ball that tells you when you're about to make a mindless mistake? New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that may be possible in certain cases, a finding that could one day help improve workplace and employee safety.

Tom Eichele and colleagues have shown that specific areas of the brains of people performing monotonous tasks light up like fireworks on the Fourth of July moments before making a mistake. Their findings contradict previous suspicions that human errors result from brief fluctuations in concentration or brain activity.

Eichele's experiment involved 13 healthy men and women aged 22 to 29. Each group member performed a monotonous task that involved responding to visual clues while undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan of the brain.

The scans revealed signs of altered activity in specific regions of the brain, including the brain's default mode network, up to 30 seconds before a subject made a mistake. The brain's default network has greater activity during resting conditions.

During testing, the researchers found more activity in the default mode network and a decrease in activity of brain areas linked to performing tasks.

In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Eichele writes: "The current work demonstrates that brain activity patterns can be used to predict erroneous behavior for many seconds ahead in time, making it unlikely that errors solely result from momentary fluctuations in brain activity."

Eichele believes that monitoring these brain states in real-world situations using specialized equipment may help avoid errors related to monotonous tasks, a step that could lead to safer workplace environments.

By Kelli Stacy
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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