Study Finds Pilots’ Brains Work Differently


Medical science has now confirmed what your family and friends have been telling you since the first time you strapped in and maybe before that. Your brain works differently than that of non-flying folks and contrary to what those in your immediate bubble might think, that’s actually a good thing, well mostly. Chinese researchers have determined that the brains of pilots are wired differently to deal with the unique environment of the cockpit. The researchers determined that pilots’ brains have greater connections between the “central executive network,” which is the part of the brain that makes sense of various bits of information, and the parts of the brain supplying the raw data. That’s the good thing. It “might enable the network to have more diverse functions,” which helps put all the various inputs from instruments, the radio, the sight picture and others in the cockpit into coherence.

“Pilots are always working in complex, dynamic environments. Flying is now not so much a ‘physical job,’ but a high-level cognitive activity,” the study said. “The pilot should be completely aware of all conditions in real time, and be ready to deal with various potential emergencies.” The tradeoff might have something to do with what your partner whispers in your ear at parties although he or she probably expresses it more colorfully than the scientific explanation. While the central executive network is synthesizing all that diverse data, there seems to be a decreased level of “internal connectivity.” That, said the researchers, is “associated with self-control and appraisal of threatening stimuli.” The study involved 14 flight instructors at the Civil Aviation Flight University of China and 12 first officers from Chinese airlines whose brains were watched in action on imaging equipment.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. DUH! We pilots knew this all along.

    The physical act of flying the airplane is the EASY part. Synthesizing all the other stuff together and feeding it all into one’s “noodle” where it mixes in with all the aviation knowledge is the fun part for me. Once mastered, even that is easy. SOME people can’t do this. Just yesterday on a long drive south to our winter home, I let my wife drive so I could rest for an hour; she almost sideswiped a semi when she was looking down at the instrument panel of the vehicle. Look down; vehicle moves sideways. I see this all the time on the roads (not just from women). Some people basically can’t drive and chew gum. Pilots have to fly, chew gum, scan, juggle, tap dance, talk on the radio, read charts, scratch itches and once in a while land in a big river, too.

    Anyhow … interesting read and research.

  2. Not mentioned in the article is a warped relationship with money, where thousands of dollars are nothing but a few dollars is a big deal.

  3. To the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One”:
    When the enterprising flyer’s not a-flying
    when the pilot isn’t occupied in flight
    It’s a simple fact and there’s no use denying
    That his mental equilibrium’s all right!

    When the flyboy isn’t high above the weather
    he is often just as sane as you and me
    But the moment you get him and height together
    he becomes a lunatic of high degree!

    And when he straps you in and all the doors are shut (the doors are shut)
    The pilot goes completely off his nut (off his nut!)
    – Oscar Brand, “The Passenger’s Lament”, from the album “Up in the Air,” 1960.

  4. As a professional pilot for about 60 years, I have always wondered why the people around me don’t seem to get it. Except for other pilots, of course. This article helps me understand! I suffer two additional handicaps, in addition to being an active airshow pilot, now that my big-airplane flying is over. I am an aero engineer, and, what I only admit to good friends, a lawyer. rob the” Tumbling Bear”.

  5. Amazing how many of you take this story at face value. The Chinese are notorious for faking research and/or publishing research that doesn’t meet even the barest of standards. The sample is too small to be valid anyway. As pilots we like to think of ourselves as gifted somehow. Fact is we aren’t. This is a good example of junk science in action. Sounds good and we want to believe it so it must be so.

    • Pilots are down from 827,000 in 1980 to about 600,000 in 2018. Unit shipment are down from approx. 18,000/yr in 1980 to about 1,000 in 2018. But, there’s good news, NetFactory billings are up by 8x per unit.

    • Larry, I was thinking the same thing.
      As far as pilot brains go, I’ve seen many pilots who dreamed of becoming pilots and are mediocre at best.
      Then folks that had no intention but grew up doing motorsports and such that are told they should give flying a try. They seem to succeed very quickly.
      I believe its like the motorcycle zen theory.

      • One of my best USAF friend’s Son was very big into go cart racing. When he finished college and went into the USAF as a pilot, he scared the crap out of his FAPE instructor during formation flying because he wasn’t adverse to tucking his airplane in with the other one. So your point is spot on, Dan.

  6. Learning to read changes your brain significantly, reducing your capacity to recognize faces among other things. So it wouldn’t be surprising if pilot training had some less dramatic brain effects.

  7. That may or may not be true, but assuming it is true, is it that only people with that particular type of brain become pilots, or does the training to become a pilot actually alter the brain? And what of the pilots that, shall we say, should take up some activity other than flying?

    • That crossed my mind as well, Gary. It would make sense to me that any activity, not just flying, affects the brain and helps it to grow in such regard. It is evident that each person is an individual and has different skills and abilities that help him/her in different activities and that can be further developed to become an even better pilot, for example. So, people who are skilled in multitasking and try flying will become good pilots, while people who are terrible at it will either give up flying or end up in a smoking hole in the cornfield. This is also called natural selection, lol.

      Something that hasn’t been mentioned is: are there any other traits that would make one want to become a pilot that are linked with that “predisposition” for multitasking?

    • I was thinking the same thing. If it is that people who think in certain ways become pilots, or become better pilots, that opens the idea to testing and identifying those that would make the best pilots before hour one. Or maybe there could be testing to see which ones have the ability to learn to think that way.

  8. Not wired differently – it’s still a human brain; customised to the piloting task! I must say though that articles like this may help partners to understand!

  9. I want to see pictures of these pilots flying with the heads in scanners before I believe it.
    On the other hand, “quick give then a doctorate, before they try any other research” also applies….

  10. I’m a 65 year old student solo pilot. Just learning all the material necessary to pass the written test is a daunting task. I have my dad’s old manual from 1948. It is a 1/2 sheet pamphlet that he carried in his shirt pocket to study. My study materials fill up a bookshelf. Flying ‘bug smashers’ is not for the fainthearted. The number of antenna towers alone is amazing. Caressing the yoke is the easy part.