Carnegie PhD Scholar awarded Robertson Medal 2023-24
Feeling the drag: Effects of sustained task perfomance on periodic mechanisms of attentio
Humans focus on sustained tasks every single day, and accept that experiencing fatigue as a consequence is normal. Yet, what are our brains’ limits when we focus our attention for extended periods of time? Many high-responsibility careers require prolonged periods of attention and zero tolerance to errors, such as piloting, long-haul driving, and flight controlling. Getting drowsy at the wheel and getting into an accident is the reason for estimated 4 deaths every day in the USA. Therefore, it is important to understand our own personal limitations.
This research investigated the rate of change in measures of an individual’s attention span during a demanding visual task by using EEG (electroencephalography). Neuroscientific research has shown that the brain’s alpha-band power (8-12Hz oscillations) is associated with relaxation and inhibition of attention. Thus, high levels of alpha power over time could serve as a proxy measure for a person’s increase in drowsiness and decrease in attention.
As a first step of our data investigation, we performed artifact rejection (cleaning), followed by spectral analysis to investigate the brain’s rhythms across frequencies. Target detection rates were also extracted from task performance data. Finally, linear regression models, as well as t-tests and 95% confidence intervals were calculated in order to examine the mutual relationships between time, alpha band power, and success rates.
Overall, we found that the alpha band power preceding a demanding but repetitive task that required sustained attention increased gradually over the course of time, indicating a loss of focus. Furthermore, we observed that the participants’ target detection performance deteriorated over time.
In conclusion, this research demonstrated that the timeframe of a human operator’s drop in performance could be predicted by the changes in the brain’s alpha power. Such objective approach could be useful in ensuring optimal performance and efficient human resource management.
Awarded: Undergraduate Vacation Scholarship
University: University of Stirling