Scientists Examine Why Some Pilots Thrive Under Pressure, and Some Crack

A peek into the brain could help us train the pilots of the future.

pilots cockpit airplane airbus321
Getty ImagesEric Piermont

Every commercial pilot would prefer nothing but uneventful flights, but sometimes the things go wrong and pilots have to both handle drastically shifting circumstances while maintaining the mental calm to process new information as it comes in. It's a lot to ask of anyone, which is why scientists at Drexel University have begun measuring the brain activity of pilots in real-time.

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Using technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, the scientists are able to monitor pilot activity while they move about the cockpit and make decisions. An fNIRS system keeps track of blood oxygenation changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where problem solving, memory, judgement and impulse control are located.

When a person is learning a new skill, the prefrontal cortex is highly active. But as a task becomes a more learned trait, the brain is able to spread its resources out across other areas. This gives the prefrontal cortex space to breathe, so to speak, in the case of a split-second decision needed to be made.

"Unfortunately, many human-machine interfaces expose users to workload extremes, diminishing the operator's attention and potentially leading to catastrophic consequences," Hasan Ayaz, PhD, an associate research professor at Drexel, in a press release. Ayaz and co-author Frédéric Dehais, of ISAE-SUPAERO in Toulouse, France have published their work in .

Researchers split 28 pilots into two teams. One team flew in actual planes and the other that stayed in flight simulators. With fNIRS systems monitoring their brain activity, the pilots began a series of memorization tests given to them by pre-recorded air traffic control instructions for flight parameters. These varied in difficulty and in how they were distributed to the pilots.

pilot brain monitoring headband
A pilot wearing the fNIRs headband. His brain activity is being monitored on the ground by researchers.
ISAE-SUPAERO
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A clear trend emerged. Pilots in the real flight conditions had more errors and their brains had higher prefrontal cortex activation than the pilots in the simulator.

It's a testament to how the pressure of real-time flight differs from even the most advanced simulations. But going forward, Ayaz and his co-authors on this paper hope that this fNIRS measuring system could be a first step towards understanding why some pilots are strive and others crack under pressure.

Pilots like Sully Sullenberger, Tammie Jo Shults and Liu Chuanjian are rightfully lauded for their quick thinking under drastic circumstances. But not every pilot can make the right call, and tragedies like the one-in-a-million Germanwings Flight 9525 show how keeping track of a pilot's brain function could help save lives.

Someday perhaps the plane itself could monitor a pilot's activity and adjust itself to help the flight out. "We believe that this type of approach will open a whole new direction of research for studying parameters in an aviation setting and eventually designing better machines," says Dehais.

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