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Cognitive Fatigue... an Example
Cognitive fatigue is the problem. But what does that actually mean? As mentioned in an earlier post cognitive fatigue is in which your brain is tired... and when your brain is in that state is has consequences. Here, the issue is decision-making. People that are in a cognitively fatigued state make poor decisions, and when they make poor decisions, accidents happen.
In terms of a Mars mission, one mistake could lead to the death of every single astronaut. Hence, cognitive fatigue is a real problem.
And it is not just the Mars mission where this is a problem. The Krigolson Lab has done a couple of cool studies the past few years. In one two summers ago, we took a research team to a mine in Northern British Columbia to monitor cognitive fatigue in the people working at the mine. We found some interesting results.
This is a histogram which is a summary of the cognitive fatigue scores for the mine. What is interesting here is what statisticians would call a "skew" - there is a bias here towards low scores and that is not what we would hope to see. Indeed, more than half the scores are in the 1 and 2 range indicating people that are either very fatigued in red or fatigued in orange. Ideally, you would want to see everyone in the two green ranges. At a minimum, you would hope that everyone was "average" which would be blue. But here you see something thats a bit scary - most of the workers at this mine are cognitively fatigued. And that means that people will make poor decisions and that means people will die.
Here is another interesting result from our work at the mine. The workers work 7 days on and 7 days off. Not surprisingly, the workers fatigue scores are down by days 6 and 7. So maybe a 7 day work week is a bad idea. Not too surprising but a change that should be made. I think what's more interesting here is that fatigue scores were also below average on day 1. That means that people were returning to work after 7 days off that probably should not have returned to work. I think that is mostly a lifestyle issue - but it does speak to the notion of return to work screening or something like this. If someone is too tired when they show up for work, should they be allowed to return to work?
Cognitive fatigue is a real problem. We have roadside screenings for alcohol and drugs, but we should also be screening for cognitive fatigue. If someone is too tired to drive a car, then they are just as dangerous as someone that is inebriated.
And that is why we are developing this tech for the Mars mission. To ensure that anyone that does a job is ready to go and not a danger to themselves or others.
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Dr. Olav Krigolson is the Associate Director for the Centre for Biomedical Research, an Associate Professor in Neuroscience, and the Principle Investigator of the Theoretical and Applied Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Victoria.