Mind Over Matter

Inattention causes accidents and injuries. This system trains the brain to stay attuned.

IT'S not exactly rocket science, but close enough. Launched recently by Unique Logic and Technology Inc. (ULT) of Asheville, N.C., a computer-based training program named Play Attention Adult® (PA2) focuses on one of the all-important yet least-delved aspects of occupational safety and health: paying attention. The program is based on the premise that attention control is a thoroughly learnable skill, and its space-age method is all in the mind.

The PA2 system employs patented technology that is a modification of techniques NASA developed for monitoring pilots' attention in flight simulators to reduce accident rates, and it is similarly designed to combat the challenges and potential dangers associated with inattention in the workplace. As serious as its consequences are, the "Play" in its name is derived from the software's series of video game-like exercises that users complete during training. No joysticks or other game controllers are needed for these games, though, because users accomplish movement and manipulation of the on-screen objects through brain power alone.

Beta Business Bureau
The system uses a sensor-lined helmet attached to an interface unit that plugs into any Windows-based PC or Mac. The low-stimuli games rely on the helmet's sensors to monitor the user's brain waves, which the interface box then interprets and augments for visible, real-time results in the on-screen action. When users are tuned in and focusing, they emit the necessary beta waves required to complete the various tasks and otherwise "win" the game. Daydreaming or distraction results in high theta waves, which cause regression from the games' goals. The better a user concentrates and controls attention, the more successful the results.

Scenarios can be customized to mimic any work site's control panels or office settings. In one exercise designed for use in a bank, for example, the goal is to move a fax machine printout to an in-box on the other side of the screen, a feat accomplished only by concentrating on the animated page. When users fidget or lose focus, the printout drifts back toward the fax machine. The feedback provided is instant as users see and hear how they're progressing, which PA2 inventor and ULT CEO Peter Freer says results in encouraging the practice of skills that retrain the brain in how to think more clearly and attentively. Other exercises focus on improving the cognitive skills needed to finish tasks, increase memory, and filter out distractions.

The entire program consists of 40 to 60 hours of training conducted in twice-weekly sessions of 30 to 40 minutes each, after which participants' attention is permanently improved, Freer said. He added that while that duration obviously does not qualify the program as a "quick fix," the results are worth the commitment.

"Behavioral patterns and development of cognitive skills takes time," he said. "Attention control is a learnable skill, and it's a skill we teach. It's vitally important to realize that that's where we fit in. We are skill builders."

Attention Squared
Freer, a former elementary school teacher with special training through the National Science Foundation in educational computer programming and software, introduced the original, school-based Play Attention Learning System in 1994. It is used in 450 school systems and 20 learning centers throughout the country with many more abroad.

While adults can and do build attention skills using that program, its structure is child- and adolescent-oriented. The new PA2 caters specifically to adult and workplace populations. These receive considerably less attention in matters of ADD or ADHD, despite the fact that the condition persists into adulthood for an estimated 60 percent of children diagnosed with it, according to Freer.

A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health indicated ADHD affects 4 percent of the U.S. adult population, or 8 million adults, 80 percent of whom don't know they have it, much less receive treatment for it. Many researchers say those numbers are conservative, but percentages are difficult to determine because most adults with ADHD do not reveal their condition, fearing possible scrutiny at work or, at worst, being fired.

The Americans with Disabilities Act covers individuals diagnosed with ADHD. While most who have it prefer to keep it a don't-ask-don't-tell situation, this could be difficult for them if their workplace implements PA2 as a mandatory program, even with the best intentions. "There are companies, though, that actually understand these individuals and, knowing their limitations, want to encourage them rather than fire them and try to retrain someone else," Freer said.

ULT sells two versions of the system: an industrial package for $2,500 that allows unlimited users and a personal package for $1,795, which limits use to two people who are automatically enrolled in the equivalent of a distance-learning program. Instructing an on-site supervisor to implement the program is part of the industrial package, but both versions include professional, one-on-one support from PA2 trainers. For more information, visit www.playattention.com.

This column appears in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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