As tasks mount up, our brain’s ability to juggle goes down. Neuroergonomic tactics can relieve the cognitive burden
Just about every parent will have a personal version of this scenario, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic: it is evening after a long workday. You are getting dinner started, but it’s like trying to cook in a blizzard. The children are crying, the spaghetti’s boiling over on the stove, your phone starts buzzing with a long-awaited call after a job interview, the doorbell just rang, and you’re the only adult in the house.
Now imagine someone came up to you in the middle of all of this and said: ‘Hey, I have some chocolate here. I can give you this chocolate right now with five bucks or, if you wait a half hour, I will give you the chocolate and 10 bucks.’ As you gently try to peel a toddler from your lower leg while reaching to turn off the stove burner, you say: ‘Put the chocolate and the $5 on the counter and go away.’ Making this quick decision means you have one less thing to think about – and one person less in the kitchen. You don’t have time to make what looks like the better choice of just as much chocolate but twice as much money, if only you could wait.
Now envision support systems to lift some of that load. A stove that turns down its burners when sensors pick up boiling water on its surface. A digital assistant that takes calls after three rings and says: ‘Sorry, I am unavailable for just a few minutes – please call back in five.’ A front porch sensor with a stern recorded voice (and possibly the background noise of a loud, booming dog bark) that says: ‘No solicitors’. And children who… well, there’s no technology for that – yet. But with everything else offloaded to digital supporters, you could make the cool-headed decision to delay the chocolate and get double the money to boot.
Overburdened parents aren’t the only people who could use some gadgets to offload mental cargo. One study asked pilots to press a button every time they heard an alarm signifying crisis during a flight simulation; in more than a third of cases, the volunteer pilots did not register the sound, which is rather alarming in itself. The researchers running the investigation also conducted electroencephalograms (EEGs) on the pilots during the scenarios. In the brain, the EEG findings suggested, the demands of the intense flight scenario created a cognitive bottleneck that even an urgent auditory alarm could not breach.
Neuroergonomics researchers are looking at what can be done to break through the chaos. They are following what happens in our bodies as our attention, executive function, emotions and moods wax and wane. They even assess how our physiological responses change in synchrony with each other.
Academics in this field seek to improve safety areas such as flight, where real-world tragedies can be caused by human error. They use neuroscience approaches to understand the brain at work and why that brain sometimes makes catastrophic errors or omissions, such as not registering a loud and insistent alarm. Once these patterns are known, machines can be used to detect them and work with their human ‘partners’ to offload burdens and prevent bad outcomes.
We need the help because our resources are limited. The human brain is not an infinitely whirring information processor. It’s an organic structure just like an oak tree or a penguin; it has a finite capacity, with access to a finite amount of energy. Our cognitive workload is how much we’re using of those resources to make a decision or get a task done.
The deliberative system in this case is at the front of your brain, the prefrontal cortex. The overload on it under duress is easily demonstrated by the N-backtask, which places a strain on working memory. Working memory is the ‘place’ where we sketch information for instant recall, such as the pin number for the Zoom meeting we’re joining. In the N-back task, the test-taker has to try to remember if an item in a sequence is one they’ve already seen. It starts easily enough with only one item in the sequence but, as the items increase in number, many a prefrontal cortex reaches its limit and becomes inefficient. One study showed that when the ‘n’ or number in the sequence reaches seven, the prefrontal cortex throws up its figurative hands and gives up. The result is a decision-making collapse.
That’s why we make more impulsive decisions when we’re overloaded, unable to apply the deliberation we’d like.[…]
is an American writer. She is the author of Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis (2020) and The Tailored Brain: From Ketamine, to Keto, to Companionship, A User’s Guide to Feeling Better and Thinking Smarter (2021). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.