Headset to ease mental overload for air-traffic controllers

A cheap, portable brain scanner can tell when you're engaged with what you're doing and when you're not. One day it could help manage the cognitive workload for people with stressful jobs.

For the easily distracted among us, losing concentration sometimes results in simply a waste of our time. But for air-traffic controllers… well, it’s stressful having to manage a dozen flight paths, with hundreds of people on each aircraft.

So, researchers at Tufts University have designed a device that scans your brain to gauge your mental workload -- one day it can act like a filter, letting information through when you want it, while keeping the rest at bay. New Scientist reports.

The system relies on a technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS, pictured left). Like fMRI, this imager detects areas of brain activity based on blood flow. But infrared sensors are cheap and portable.

  1. A headset (pictured, right) beams infrared light from emitters on your forehead into the planning and decision-making part of your brain. Some light is absorbed by hemoglobin, some is reflected back.
  2. By measuring the amount of light reaching receivers on the forehead, the system can tell if you’re concentrating intently or if you’re not mentally engaged.
  3. Matching the readings to what you’re looking at allows the system to determine what’s useful info and what’s getting in the way.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is exploring the technique to help objectively monitor and manage the cognitive workloads of air-traffic controllers. Current performance-monitoring systems won’t be able to keep if air traffic levels keep increasing.

Aircraft can be diverted from busy airspace to ease the load on air-traffic controllers, but that decision is based solely on the number of planes already in an area. But managing six planes with complex flight paths can be harder than managing 12 with simpler ones, so fNIRS could route flights based on the brain power available for a given airspace.

"Adaptive automation is the holy grail for us," says FAA's Ben Willems. "Although it looks like a video game on the radar scope, those 12 aircraft could each be carrying 200 people.”

These same principles can help the rest of us in our daily lives too.

  • drivers: research the cognitive demands of new car features, like heads-up displays
  • marketers: measure responses to product packaging and advertising
  • workers: determine when you’re busy and filter overwhelming rivers of information, interrupting you only when an incoming email is important

The work [pdf] will be presented at the Augmented Human conference in Germany next month.

[Via New Scientist]

Image from E.M. Peck et al., 2013

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com