Monday, September 06, 2004

Neuroergonomics

From the September 2004 issue of The Monitor on Psychology comes this brief overview to a novel application of neuroscience:

The baggage screener's brain scan
The emerging field of neuroergonomics seeks to improve work safety and make everyday tasks, like driving, safer.

BY CHARLOTTE HUFF

Imagine if employers monitored the performance of air traffic controllers and baggage screeners not just for mistakes, but--through on-the-job brain monitoring--for insights into their brain functioning. The idea: Anticipate cognitive decline or fatigue in the workers to prevent safety problems.

A group of psychologists, neurologists and other medical professionals is pursuing such a vision of improved worker functioning in an increasingly high-tech world through a melding of neuroscience and ergonomics. Through research in the area, they hope to better understand and improve the brain's functioning at work.

The results could be far ranging, from altering training of assembly-line workers to reconfiguring automation in airplane cockpits so pilots aren't overwhelmed with tasks during high-stress situations. Closer to home, the developing field could help redesign tomorrow's cars to minimize sensory overload from navigation systems, media gadgets and other devices so the real work--driving--isn't jeopardized.

"Technology that is supposed to help us sometimes can have unintended consequences like increased mental demands," says Raja Parasuraman, PhD, a George Mason University psychology professor, who in 1998 proposed the creation of the neuroergonomics field.

In the past, ergonomics studies were confined to performance measures, such as error rates and reaction times. By taking advantage of brain imaging technology, pioneers in neuroergonomics hope to gain a broader window into mental workload, vigilance and other aspects of how the brain learns and processes information.

"Combining the neuroscience techniques allows us to expand our investigative powers," says Carryl Baldwin, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, who is applying neuroergonomics techniques to better understand mental workload and driving.

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