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Mental Models: Decision-making isn’t as logical as Lego

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By Gareth Lock

What do the following all have in common?

  • When I started to dive a drysuit, I recognized that as I descended the drysuit compressed, and when I ascended, the pressure came off. At the same time, I was using my depth gauge to determine whether I was ascending or descending by looking at the screen. As I got more experienced, I didn’t need to look at my depth gauge to know if I was moving up or down in the water column, I could tell if I had moved 30cm/1ft because the suit pressure changed.
  • When I descended through the clear waters of Angelita Cenote in Mexico, I saw a layer below me where the hydrogen sulfide was captured in the halocline. I knew the visibility was going to be bad as we descended into it, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that bad.
  • When I was doing my advanced trimix (GUE Tech 2) training, the early dives were using a twinset and three stages, all full of 32%. The first time I pulled the dump valve to stabilize at the first stop, a lot more gas escaped than I thought would because I was much heavier than previous dives I had done before, and I sank back down! With practice, I worked out how long to open the dump valve in order to stabilize correctly.
  • When I started to dive on a rebreather, I remember breathing in to arrest my descent after getting it mostly there using the wing inflate. I didn’t stop and hit the bottom.

All of them represent mental models that I had or had developed as I learned to dive in different environments. These mental models allowed me to ‘not think’ about what I was doing, the new actions were based on subconscious thoughts. However, it took time to develop them because the early models were limited or flawed, and as a consequence, I either made mistakes or was task loaded trying to solve the problem, which meant I wasn’t efficient.

Gareth exiting from Ponderosa Cenote, near Tulum, Mexico. Credit: Ellen Cuylaerts


But mental models don’t just relate to the physical or technical skills we develop, they also apply to the decisions we make and the risks we take. We are ultimately biased in our decision making and we need to be aware of this. The 175+ biases listed on the Cognitive bias Wikipedia page can be reduced down to four. Ironically, this in itself is a result of one of the biases!

  • Too much information. There is just too much information in the world, we have no choice but to filter almost all of it out. Our brain uses a few simple tricks to pick out the bits of information that are most likely going to be useful in some way.
  • Not enough meaning. The world is very confusing, and we end up only seeing a tiny sliver of it, but we need to make some sense of it in order to survive. Once the reduced stream of information comes in, we connect the dots, fill in the gaps with stuff we already think we know and update our mental models of the world.
  • A need to act fast. We’re constrained by time and information, and yet we can’t let that paralyze us. Without the ability to act fast in the face of uncertainty, we surely would have perished as a species long ago. With every piece of new information, we need to do our best to assess our ability to affect the situation, apply it to decisions, simulate the future to predict what might happen next, and otherwise act on our new insight.
  • What should we remember? There’s too much information out there. We can only afford to keep around the bits that are most likely to prove useful in the future. We need to make constant bets and trade-offs around what we try to remember and what we forget. For example, we prefer generalizations over specifics because they take up less space. When there are lots of irreducible details, we pick out a few standout items to save and discard the rest. What we save here is what is most likely to inform our filters related to ‘Too much information’, as well as to inform what comes to mind during the processes mentioned in ‘Not enough meaning’ around filling in incomplete information. Unfortunately, it’s all self-reinforcing.

Although we don’t like to admit it, many of the decisions we make are based on assumptions that something will happen the way it did the last time, because this allows us to reduce the mental energy we consume. We often talk of complacency as being a bad thing, or that ‘making assumptions’ makes an ass out of you and me, but in reality, these concepts are what allows us to operate at the pace we do.

Lanny descending into the hydrogen sulfide filled halocline at Angelita Cenote, near Tulum, Mexico. Credit: Gareth Lock


As divers (and humans) we need to change our attitude towards complacency and assumptions and recognize that we can’t stop using these tools. Rather we should look at when such automatic behaviors and associated application of mental models will get us into serious trouble if we remain on autopilot, and then slow down or stop to take a little more time to look at the situation. Sometimes this is difficult given the way our brains work because we don’t want to miss out on an awesome dive or because there are pressures to complete the dive. In fact, the more we are invested in a dive e.g. time, money, long-transit or road journey to get there, peer pressure or not wanting to let our buddies/teammates down, the harder it is to say, “We are not doing this dive” or “I’m thumbing it now”. While anyone can thumb a dive at any time for any reason, sometimes it’s not that simple when you are there in the moment, especially if your previous experiences of doing this were negative.

In addition to targeted training, three simple ways to reduce the impact of biases are:

  • Using briefs and checklists to ensure that the assumptions the dive leader/diver has are aligned with the reality of the situation and what the team/diver thinks is happening.
  • Using debriefs to understand if the assumptions which were made prior to the dive were indeed valid. In addition to the four key topics I teach divers to use in a debrief (What did I do well? Why? What do I need to improve on? How? What did the team do well? How? What do the team need to improve on? How?), I also get teams to consider ‘What was the greatest risk we took during that dive/task?’ as a way of learning how close they got to the failure line and what they could/will do differently next time.

Mental models are essential to high-performance teams. They reduce the mental workload involved which means they can focus on the goal of the dive. However, if those mental models are not closely aligned with reality, then accidents will happen. Most errors happen because of poor perception rather than poor decisions based on good information. As a good friend said to me recently, no surprises, no accidents.


  Karim Hamza delivering a debrief to three divers at the performance EDGE event in January 2017 in Seattle.


Gareth Lock is an OC and CCR technical diver with the personal goal of improving diving safety and diver performance by enhancing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes towards human factors in diving. Although based in the UK, he runs training and development courses across the globe as well as via his online portal https://www.thehumandiver.com. He is the Director of Risk Management for GUE and has been involved with the organization since 2006 when he completed his Fundamentals class.

Cave

No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

Suffering from Covid lockdown, young, poetic Italian explorer, instructor, and gear-maker, Andrea Murdock Alpini, decided to take social distancing to the max! He packed his specially designed cave-van and set out on a three-week solo road trip to dive the water-filled caves lying beneath the Slovenian soil. His report and must-see video log, dubbed, “No Direction Home”—an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan docu—will likely satisfy those deeper urges for adventure. Did I mention the killer soundtrack? Kids don’t try this at home!

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Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Ecco la storia originale così com’è stata scritta in italiano

Author’s note: I do not encourage other divers to conduct solo diving. The trip and the dives described in this article were conducted after significant training and experience.

Ed.Note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.

Freedom!

That was the feeling I had last June 2020 when I left my home to begin a journey alone. Caves, abandoned mines, alpine lakes, and a few wrecks—that was my plan for a great adventure.  

The first COVID-19 lockdown had been in place for a couple of weeks, and I was afraid of going out and meeting people. Social distancing left an open wound. I loaded my wreck-van with plenty of stuff to survive alone for a long month traveling amongst rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests, and I was ready to practice scuba diving. 

At that time, tourist travel was impossible in Italy or abroad—anywhere  in Europe—because the coronavirus had locked the borders. I asked an editor in chief from a magazine—one whom I am used to sending articles to—to prepare a couple of official invitation letters for customs. For my trip, I converted my wreck van into a cave van. It was fully equipped with a 300-bar air compressor, helium, oxygen, deco cylinders, twinsets of different sizes, gas booster, fins, mountain boots, tent, camp burner, and brand-new dry suits, as well as thermal underwear to be tested for my company PHY Diving Equipment. 

I remember the day well. I was thrilled as I crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia. I had been restricted to nothing but a 200 m/650 ft walk from my house because of the pandemic restrictions, but with an eight-hour drive, I was free to enjoy walking into wild nature all alone.

The mental switch was awesome, and unexpected. I did make just one phone call from abroad. I talked to an incredible Russian who was the first guy I met in a small rural village in Slovenia. He had emigrated some years ago, and now he welcomed travelers by sharing his farmstead. 

However, once I arrived on site, I was not very welcomed by  the weather; instead, I was met by heavy rain. After the storm passed, I went out walking and filming with my phone. I had decided to record all of the trip. As luck would have it,  the rain returned again, and it never left me for the entire duration of my trip (almost a month).

My tour was articulated throughout Slovenia, Garda Lake (Italy), Austria, and South Tirol’s Alps, Tuscany’s caves, and finally I reached the central part of Italy—Appenini mountains and their peaks. I planned to reach two mines, but heavy rains stopped my dream. Excluding Slovenia, where I slept in a traditional bed, I passed all my time living in my tent. Cold weather and storms were my constant companions. 

I managed to see  a ray of light for just a few hours, I never had any chance to dry my equipment, and I warmed up inside my van. Every night I slept only a few hours because of loud wind noise or strong rain storms. Day-by-day I grew tireder and more feeble. One day, three weeks after I left home, I was in South Tirol descending a mountain when I decided to conclude my trip, and I returned home safe.

The goal of my trip was to tell scuba adventures from the surface point of view where the water is only a part of the context and not the objective. I made a mini-series film composed of three chapters. Each one brings you inside the scene. What  follows here is the first episode of the trip.

Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil

The first day of cave diving in Slovenia was very tricky and full of adventures. I had no idea how the second day would go. 

I left my accommodations around 6 a.m., after a good breakfast of cereal, dark chocolate with black coffee, dried fruit, and tasty Italian Parmesan cheese. I could not see anything from my window because what had fallen was not simply rain; it appeared to be an awesome flood. My plan for that day had been delayed.

I think that most parts of dry caves are condemned for hundreds of kilometers. So, I decided to check the weather forecast and water level conditions in caves close to the Croatian border. It would mean driving about four hours to see for myself whether scuba diving was allowed. I didn’t have to remind myself, I was alone here.



Wheels were on the road and local conditions seemed quite good. I had checked the weather on my laptop and understood the risk. If I was lucky, I could dive; if not, I would have to drive back. I drove through Slovenia forest meeting no one. With less than an hour left to my destination, I came across an abandoned farm village, completely empty.

The dive inside Bilpa Jama was breathtaking. Now I was seated beside the cave shore preparing soup to warm myself. After a stunning solo dive, I was cold and wanted only to taste the peace of this magnificent place. While I was dipping  the spoon in my soup cup, I heard a faraway voice, a police woman calling me and asking me to stop eating and come quickly to her. 

After I did as I was asked, she started examining my passport, documents, and permissions. A few minutes later, a huge National Army truck reached us. The soldier had  an abnormal body shape, a man the size of a walking mountain in an Army uniform. Can you imagine how I was feeling in those moments?!

Well, in the end, everything went really well, and I now have a story to tell my grandchildren. 

Once the passport control was over, and they had checked that I did not cross  the border from Croatia to Slovenia illegally (customs was only a few hundred meters  from us), I had the chance to get back to my soup, which by then had turned cold. I warmed it up again, and I spent half an hour seated on a slippery stone covered with moss and lichens watching the beauty of the forest surrounding me.

On the way back to my accomodations in my cave van, I  played a new playlist. 

Four hours later, I approached my country lodge. I was really exhausted,  but I had to refill tanks and plan the next scuba diving days. Once I finished, I watched the forecast again. Unfortunately, it was growing worse, so I decided not to dive and instead get a surface break. Tomorrow I would drive, search, and catch info and GPS coordinates of caves. My tomorrow plans had turned into a sketching and surveying day. 

The Road To Suha Dolca 

I drove and walked for hours and hours, up and down the forest or on lonely roads in search of caves where I could return in winter or perhaps next year. During the last survey of the day, I watched a talented young guy playing a traditional concertina and thought, what a lovely atmosphere and a fitting way to close my hard-working day!


I decided to give a last gaze to Suha Dolca cave, my favorite one, on the way home. This was the third consecutive day I had arrived back at this spot. Observing it day-by-day, I tried to find the best moment to dive this cave.

Until now, it was inaccessible due to the strong flow. I wanted to dive here before leaving Slovenia. Tired and  driving slowly, I parked my van away from my accommodation. Since I had no lunch, I started feeling very hungry. A simple dinner was quickly served: dried fruits and a cup of hot noodle soup.

My ‘NO DIRECTION HOME’ trip was now at its peak. I had become a wanderer. I was alone in a wild country with, yes, an internet connection for historical research and checking the weather. That was the only technology I used. Aside from that, I lived simply. I walked, dived, wrote, and filmed my experience all with my mobile phone.

Rain was tougher than expected. I had hoped to stop for one day, not the two that it took. Following the surveys, the next day I started fixing my video equipment and saving photos and videos I had made on my hard drive.

I had too many ideas, no one clear till the end, and too many cave sketches and GPS points to reorganize; I needed a day to regroup. I just went out for a few hours to check Suha Dolca’s Cave conditions. On this day it seemed that the flow was getting more stable, and general water conditions were growing better. I had to be patient and wait one or two days more for the right conditions. I tried and failed to find a solution on my own, but the water always showed me the way. She told me to wait and to go back to where I came from. Step-by-step I walked the path again.  

The third video chapter of Slovenia Solo Cave Diving is the one I prefer, because I remember the indecision I felt, to stay or to leave. Solo trips are strictly linked to life’s decision.


The last day I was in Slovenia I left the accommodations and asked a new farmer, close to a different cave, if I could sleep inside his barn and dive the river hole on the following day. I was at the same place where I had dived the first day. He told me I could not stay in the barn due to the high risk of bears who live in the surrounding area. I jumped in my van again and I drove to the lake beside Suha Dolca’s Cave. 

I descended the path several times and brought all my scuba gear piece-by-piece. I decided to give myself a chance to dive my dream cave in the late afternoon. I had no other choice. Once I was inside the cave it was unbelievable, and I had a very nice dive even though I was really tired, and again I broke my light arms and camera housing. I resurfaced after the dive into a reed’s lake, which made me feel like a beaver.

I had conflicting feelings as I left Slovenia that same night after making a tricky and stunning dive. Bears, awesome forests, and rural areas were now all behind me. The cave-van played a new disc, I needed to shake off these feelings and look forward to my new goals: Garda Lake’s wrecks, South Tyrol’s stunning lakes, and finally Austria. In the country of green and wide grazing land I wish to dive surrounded by the amazing scenario of beautiful Alps mountains. 

At 9:30 PM I crossed the border again, and  Italy was straight ahead.


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.

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