10:00am Sunday 07 June 2020

Understanding human performance during mental and physical tasks

Under the five-year contract, DCS and a five-school consortium that includes Michigan’s School of Kinesiology, will establish and operate a collaborative technology alliance in cognition and neuroergonomics. The project will examine human performance in complex military environments but the results will also be able to be applied to civilian contexts.

The other research institutions include the University of California-San Diego Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, National Chiao Tung University (Taiwan) Brain Research Center, University of Texas-San Antonio Department of Computer Science and University of Osnabrück (Germany) Institute of Cognitive Science.

“We want to understand how mental tasks affect physical performance—texting, talking on the phone or looking at a map while driving or walking—and how physical tasks affect mental performance—carrying a heavy backpack or running while trying to search the environment for a location or enemy,” said Daniel Ferris, U-M associate professor of movement science and biomedical engineering. “This type of dual tasking is common in the everyday lives of military personnel and civilians. For example, a large percentage of falls during walking by the elderly occur during this type of dual tasking and a large number of accidents during driving also occur while dual tasking.”

Ferris, who is also associate dean for research at the School of Kinesiology, will lead the U-M research on ambulatory neuroergonomics. The primary goals include quantifying the effects of physical stress on cognitive performance and the effects of cognitive stress on physical performance during human locomotion. In addition to experimental data collection, Ferris and colleagues will construct a computational model for predicting human performance and assessing the efficacy of using different sensory modalities for augmenting cognitive performance during locomotion.

“Human locomotion has traditionally been viewed as a very automated motor task with little cognitive involvement, but recent research has challenged this perspective,” he said. “Studies examining elderly individuals and neurological patients have found that cognitive deficiencies can greatly affect gait dynamics. Investigations on healthy young, healthy old and neurologically impaired subjects performing multiple locomotor and cognitive tasks have concluded that executive function and attention are critical aspects of locomotor control in humans.

“Dual tasking of locomotor and cognitive tasks results in subjects adopting altered strategies for performing the dual tasks. However, few studies have quantitatively assessed whether these changes in cognitive performance occur in response to locomotor effort or changes in locomotor performance occur in response to cognitive effort.”

The U-M project will focus on standing, walking and running motor tasks, using a range of concurrent mental tasks. Ferris and colleagues will use a generic video game environment that involves participants exploring a virtual city while cooperating with friends and avoiding foes. The project combines cognitive stressors (mental fatigue, environment unfamiliarity, environment complexity) and physical stressors (physical fatigue, backpack weighting, locomotor speed) to determine the effects of cognitive/physical effort on physical/cognitive performance.

Experiments will take place both at the U-M Human Neuromechanics Laboratory on a 1-D laboratory treadmill with a 180-degree virtual reality environment, and on a 2-D treadmill with a 360-degree virtual reality environment at the Army Research Laboratory’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

“While this is basic science research, the long term applications of the research are to develop better methods for transmitting information to people without decreasing their physical or mental performance,” Ferris said. “It will also allow us to develop guidelines about how much mental or physical loading is reasonable to do without substantially degrading physical or mental performance.”

“Ideally, the Army would like to use the information to design better procedures and equipment for keeping soldiers mentally alert and performing at a high level when they are walking or running through various environments. Another goal of the project is to determine if there is something unique about individuals who are high performers. Is there something that we can identify about the brain function of individuals that are better at dual tasking compared to individuals that are not good at dual tasking?”

The University of Michigan School of Kinesiology continues to be a leader in the areas of prevention and rehabilitation, the business of sport, understanding lifelong health and mobility, and achieving health across the lifespan through physical activity. The School of Kinesiology is home to the Athletic Training, Movement Science, Physical Education, and Sport Management academic programs—bringing together leaders in physiology, biomechanics, public health, urban planning, economics, marketing, public policy, and education and behavioral science since 1894.


Related Links:

School of Kinesiology

Daniel Ferris


Contact: Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 647-1847

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