New Center Aims to Use Brain Science to Help People Work Better with Machines

Posted: September 13, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: September 16, 2010 at 12:31 pm

By Tara Laskowski

Raja Parasuraman will direct the new center. Creative Services photo

How can humans best interact with and manipulate complex machinery? What are the challenges of designing computer systems that can easily be understood and used with minimal error? And can we monitor brain structure and function in order to find out how to train people to perform complex tasks in the workplace?

These are just some of the questions that George Mason University’s new Center of Excellence in Neuroergonomics, Technology and Cognition (CENTEC) will attempt to answer.

The center, which was established this summer in the Department of Psychology, will collaborate with the departments of Molecular Neuroscience, Molecular and Microbiology (in the College of Science) and Electrical and Computer Engineering (in the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering). They will work on a $7.5 million grant, if fully funded over five years, awarded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

CENTEC, led by psychology professor Raja Parasuraman, will conduct research and training to support U.S. Air Force research and development activities on human-related technologies aimed at maintaining aerospace superiority.

Parasuraman coined the term “neuroergonomics” and wrote the book “Neuroergonomics: The Brain at Work” in 2008. He defines neuroergonomics as the study of the human brain in relation to work.

Neuroergonomics focuses on the brain mechanisms of human perception and cognition as they relate to systems and technologies, such as the use of computers, machines and vehicles.

“It is tremendously exciting to witness, from its small beginnings, the extensive growth of this emerging, interdisciplinary area of research,” says Parasuraman.

“The establishment of CENTEC will bring George Mason University to the forefront of research in neuroergonomics and ensure its future successful development.”

A conference to mark the opening of the new center was held on Sept. 14. Above, James Christensen from the Air Force Research Laboratory gives a presentation. Photo by Evan Cantwell

One project CENTEC researchers are working on looks at how pilots and other operators are trained to fly and manipulate Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs).

When they send these vehicles into dangerous war zones or into search-and-rescue areas after a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina — although the pilots are not physically on the vehicles they are flying — they must learn to detect and interpret the video images sent by the UAVs as efficiently and effectively as possible.

CENTEC researcher and psychology professor Carryl Baldwin will look at how to accelerate the learning process by using EEG measurements in the brain to see how engaged operators are in different areas of their training and adapt the learning process accordingly.

Parasuraman and CENTEC researchers Pamela Greenwood and Jim Thompson will also be using Mason’s MRI scanner to work on a project that looks at how well our “working memory” — or short-term memory — can be trained. Working memory is a fundamental component of many important tasks, such as planning and decision making.

“When you learn a new activity, the structure of your brain physically changes,” says Parasuraman.

Think of it as a muscle you flex and build up. If you train every day, you get very skilled at a task, and your brain changes and gets stronger in that area. But if you then stop training, eventually it will begin to get weaker again.

Mason researchers are interested in finding out when that “weakness” starts to occur, and therefore how long a person can go without training before they need a refresher course.

Examples of other CENTEC research projects include multimodal neuroimaging technologies, trust in automation and cyberspace, molecular genetics of cognition, and neuroadaptive automation.

In addition to all of these research projects, the center will provide excellent opportunities for “training the next generation of neuroergonomics researchers,” Parasuraman says.

CENTEC is budgeted to provide a stipend plus full tuition to eight graduate students and one postdoctoral student for each of the five years they are funded.

This semester, five graduate students have already been appointed as CENTEC “Air Force Scholars.” Three students, Brian Falcone, Andre Garcia and Ryan McKendrick, are in the PhD program in human factors and applied cognition, and two students, Christopher Rees and Ashley Safford, are in the PhD program in neuroscience.

Write to mediarel at