Probably the best job in the world

Karl, a pilot and experimental subject, prepares to have his mind read by EEG, as researcher Greg makes sure the electrodes make good contact with the skin. (Don’t ask what that expression on my face is all about, I’ve no idea…)Tom Schnell (I just love nominative determinism) is a pilot and a flight instructor who runs a research lab where he gets to grapple with fundamental issues related to human perception and behavior. As Director of the Operator Performance Laboratory at the University of Iowa his job is to understand how pilots react while performing tasks in different sets of circumstances, which he does by hooking them up to many different sensors, including an electroencephalography (EEG) net to measure brain activity. (Will say more on this in a later blog.)

Though there’s no doubt that the team love their work and have a lot of fun doing it, it’s a difficult way to do research. For one thing, you have to think about the weight of all the various computers, amplifiers, cameras and other experimental equipment. OK, its not as bad as if you were sending the kit into space, but it’s an important factor.

Another issue is power. When the plane is on the ground, without the engine running, it cannot feed the data acquisition and analysis gear: a cable has to be brought in from the lab during pre-flight preparations. Then, when they’re ready to fly, they have to switch over from one power supply to the other without interruption. If this goes wrong (as it did on my flight), you have to set up again from scratch. And, in case you’re wondering, those power-strips that can bridge interruptions to home and office electricity supply are not an option. Capacitors, a crucial component to many of these systems, have an unfortunate tendency to blow up and/or catch fire. Not something you want to risk in an enclosed space where evacuation is difficult or impossible.

There’s cost too. Every experimental run takes the time of two pilots, plus the insurance, maintenance, and fuelling of the aircraft.

Greg (back to camera) performs pre-flight preparations as Tom warns me of the dangers of air sickness.If your job is to help acquire the data, there’s another issue as well: and that’s air sickness. Sitting at the back, trying to read information from screens and sheets, keep track of data, and perform timings, affords little time to concentrate on the important things: like trying to keep your breakfast down: especially during wing overs and alternating rolls.

I prepare to do my small part of the experiment: little do I know that my stomach will make that impossible. Fortunately, the minimal data I am supposed to record can be picked up from the video playback.On my ride-along on Friday, this was supposed to be my job, though I was advised that I should put my stomach before the work. I was grateful they let me off the hook in advance: sitting at the back of the plane, you don’t get the view that allows your visual and vestibular (balance/orientation) system to agree with each other. Your brain doesn’t understand what’s happening, so you feel sick.  To compensate, I tried to sway with the plane, almost as though I was riding a bicycle, and this did help (my breakfast remained intact throughout). Unfortunately, however it took 100% of my concentration just to mitigate my ‘stomach awareness’.

The good news is that the guy who usually does the job has a cast-iron constitution. With Tom and the others from the lab, he gets to fly and experiment and analyze and study and, ultimately, learn how our cognitive systems respond to the world. Now that’s a great job.

Photo, top: Karl, a pilot and experimental subject, prepares to have his mind read by EEG, as researcher Greg makes sure the electrodes make good contact with the skin. (Don’t ask what that expression on my face is all about, I’ve no idea…)

Photo, centre: Greg (back to camera) performs pre-flight preparations as Tom warns me of the dangers of air sickness.

Photo, bottom: I prepare to do my small part of the experiment: little do I know that my stomach will make that impossible. Fortunately, the minimal data I am supposed to record can be picked up from the video playback.

Originally posted on Brains and Machines.