Superhero Performance? It’s All in Your Mind
Superhero Performance? It’s All in Your Mind published by Evanvinh
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Posted on 2016-04-14
Writer Description: Evanvinh
This writer has written 733 articles.
As so many Americans flock to the multiplex to see Iron Man, Batman, and Captain America, I’m one of few fortunate enough to work with real superheroes every day. Instead of putting together futuristic shiny suits that can fly and shoot missiles and crack jokes all at the same time, my colleagues and I are doing something much more complex: figuring out how to optimize the functioning of our most complicated—and awesome—bit of technology, our brain.
The main challenge we face is a real one that we all, not just our soldiers and pilots and other military personnel, face daily: information overload. Every day, those of us who own smart phones and computers and television sets are bombarded by sights, sounds, and signals, a torrent of information that demands to be absorbed, analyzed, and acted upon. Failure to do so may not be a big deal if we’re talking about catching a pop culture reference in a fast-paced sitcom; but if the task at hand involves operating a surveillance aircraft, or any other sensitive and critical mission, it is absolutely imperative to keep the person sitting at the console as alert as is humanly possible.
Which, sadly, is a more delicate task than it sounds. In the movies, human-machine interaction is frequently presented as a winsome and carefree task; Tony Stark need only hop into his Iron Man suit and its operating system, speaking in a pleasant British accent, is there to guide him through even the most demanding fight sequences. In real life, the person at a command post of a technologically advanced operation is likely looking at multiple screens, taking in reams and reams of raw visual and audio data. Eventually, he or she is likely to get overwhelmed, and their performance will begin to waver, which may have deleterious effects on the mission at hand. How to stop that from happening? This is why we’ve come up withSense-Assess-Augment.
In a laboratory equipped with every conceivable piece of neuroscience sensors and measuring tools—alright, that part does kind of look like something out of a Hollywood movie—we observe air force personnel as they complete demanding missions requiring concentration for long periods of time. Ask these tough guys and gals if they’re alright, and they’re likely to sneer at you and say that they could go for hours longer. But listen to their bodies instead—their heart rate, their pulse, the way their legs begin to twitch after five or six or seven hours on the chair—and you hear a different story, a story of performance in decline.
First, then, we sense the operator’s cognitive state. And because every individual is different, we tailor our analysis to each person’s particular predilections so that we can accurately tell precisely what’s going on with him or her. Then, we assess how the cognitive state we’ve just observed is affecting the person’s performance. Is that slight fatigue causing a slip in attention? Are the eyes just darting across the screen, no longer able to focus on small and crucial details? When we have an answer, we calibrate the machines to help the people augment their performance so that they can meet or exceed mission requirements.
I realize all this sounds highly specific, the sort of stuff that applies to super-soldiers but not to regular Joes. Increasingly, however, that’s no longer the case. No mater what your job may be, chances are you depend on some sort of technology to complete it efficiently and effectively, if only a computer screen or a tablet. And if that’s the case, chances are, too, that you, just like that hard-core Air Force person in the control booth, are exposed to a thick stream of information coming at you faster than any human can possibly absorb it. This is why the Sense-Assess-Augment methodology is relevant and applicable across the board, and I look forward to seeing it or similar ideas applied to boost performance in every area of our lives.
Until that happens and you too can be hooked up to nifty sensors and measured for optimal focus, there are a few things you can do to more or less guarantee that your cognitive performance remains at a peak. The first, and most important, is to learn to pay attention to your body. Your brain, likely, will always insist that you’re fine and can go on and on and on; your legs, however, may differ, and if they start fidgeting about you know that they’re trying to tell you that something is going on, something that’s about to keep you from performing at your best. Which is not to say that your brain, too, can’t be trained: study after study confirms the usefulness of meditation to increase concentration, reduce stress, and help you think as clearly as you can. Finally, remember that while you may not be a machine, you require, just like a car, the right fuel and the right rest. Signs of excessive fatigue, drops in energy or concentration, and other sub-optimal phenomena are usually here to tell you that you need to watch what you’re eating, how you’re sleeping, or both.
Soon, I hope, we can help everyone, from the bus driver to the quarterback to the stock broker to the soldier be as efficient as possible by being in harmony with the machines that help us achieve so many goals these days. Until then, we should do what superheroes always learn how to do sooner or later, and remember that our greatest might lies not in our muscles but in our brains.
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