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Auditory Verbal Working Memory Load Effects on a Simulator-Induced Spatial Disorientation Event

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INTRODUCTION: Working memory is an essential executive function for flying an aircraft and its limitations may jeopardize flight safety. This function is particularly critical when pilots have to struggle with spatial disorientation (SD) cues. This research aimed to assess the combined effect of the auditory N-back task (NBT) and simulator-induced SD cues on pilots’ flight performance.

METHODS: Using an SD simulator, 39 male military pilots (control N = 20; age M = 31.6; SD = 8.22, experimental N = 19; age M = 26.9; SD = 8.67) were exposed to 12 flight sequences, where 6 contained an SD conflict—3 with vestibular illusions and 3 with visual illusions. Additionally, the pilots from the experimental group were asked to perform an auditory NBT involving sound stimuli (the sequential letter memory task) as they performed during oriented and disoriented flight conditions.

RESULTS: Pilots’ flight performance from the NBT group were significantly worse than the control group in the approach and landing profiles involving visual illusions (for both nonconflict and conflict flight), and in the profile involving the false horizon illusion (only for the conflict flight). No increase in a pilot’s susceptibility to SD was observed with any other profiles.

DISCUSSION: The current study provides support that pilots’ cognitive workload can negatively impact flight performance. Pilots are not always aware of altered flight parameters, which may indicate that they have lost spatial orientation, mainly as a result of visual illusion. If problems occur in maintaining proper flight parameters, pilots should direct all available mental resources to regain their orientation and withdraw from any other parallel tasks.

Lewkowicz R, Stróżak P, Bałaj B, Francuz P. Auditory verbal working memory load effects on a simulator-induced spatial disorientation event. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2019; 90(6):531–539.
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Keywords: dual task; flight illusions; flight performance; spatial orientation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2019

More about this publication?
  • This journal (formerly Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine), representing the members of the Aerospace Medical Association, is published monthly for those interested in aerospace medicine and human performance. It is devoted to serving and supporting all who explore, travel, work, or live in hazardous environments ranging from beneath the sea to the outermost reaches of space. The original scientific articles in this journal provide the latest available information on investigations into such areas as changes in ambient pressure, motion sickness, increased or decreased gravitational forces, thermal stresses, vision, fatigue, circadian rhythms, psychological stress, artificial environments, predictors of success, health maintenance, human factors engineering, clinical care, and others. This journal also publishes notes on scientific news and technical items of interest to the general reader, and provides teaching material and reviews for health care professionals.

    To access volumes 74 through 85, please click here.
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