December 1, 2006 Psychologists are finding out that even when people try to focus on a task they tend to lose concentration within 40 minutes, and sometimes as little as 10 minutes. The studies are based on a new technique, called transcranial Doppler sonography, that uses ultrasound to monitor blood flow velocity in the brain. The technique could be turned into a warning system for workers who perform critical tasks -- such as pilots or air traffic controllers -- or even for drivers.
CINCINNATI -- Watching ... focusing ... scanning ... Millions of American jobs require intense concentration on monitors or television screens. But are we really paying attention?
Distractions can break anyone's concentration, but new research shows what happens in your brain can, too.
"The phenomenon is such that the more you look, the less you see," Joel Warm, Professor of Psychology at University of Cincinnati, tells DBIS.
To find out just how much you're paying attention, University of Cincinnati researchers tracked mental activity using transcranial Doppler sonography (TDS). The device measures blood flow velocity in the brain. Warm believes the reading could be an indicator of sustained, or non-stop, attention, also known as vigilance.
"The velocity goes up, it means that blood is being rushed to an area to carry away the waste product. The more mental activity, the more the waste product," he says.
During various 40-minute tests, researchers saw a decrease in blood-flow velocity over time, and, therefore, a decrease in attention. "Sometimes in the first 10 minutes," Warm says. "That early." And he says many times the participants didn't realize it was happening.
The Air Force is already interested in the research.
Lloyd Tripp, a research scientist at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio says, "What kind of breaks do we need to give those individuals who are in vigilance type of a job, high-vigilance job?"
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati say soon they will begin studying the sustained attention of drivers. Warm believes the study results can be helpful for the military, security workers, air traffic controllers and many others. He calls it a way to "monitor the monitor."
BACKGROUND: Transcranial Doppler Sonography (TCD) could be used to test the alertness of airport security screeners, air traffic controllers, or quality control and other workers who screen for the public's safety.
ON ONE'S TOES: Vigilance is an area of Human Factor/Ergonomics Research that looks at people's ability to stay focused on a task over long periods, such as someone monitoring the controls at a nuclear power plant. The challenge is how to keep alert when nothing of concern is happing, so that when a problem does occur, it will be recognized and dealt with quickly. Preliminary results indicate that TCD may offer a noninvasive and inexpensive tool to "monitor the monitor," so managers can better determine when operators performing vigilance tasks are in need of rest of replacement.
HOW TCD WORKS: TCD uses ultrasound to image the arteries located at the base of the brain, to detect any narrowing or blockage in those arteries that may decrease or stop the flow of blood to the brain. A hand-held probe resembling a wand is covered with an electrically conductive gel and held at various areas of the head: at each temple, over each eye, and at the base of the skull. The technique enables doctors to record the flow of blood in each artery. TCD is less expensive than both MRI and CT scans, the two most common medical imaging techniques. It is a portable device, so the scanner can be brought to a patient's bedside. It is easy to customize because it allows freehand scanning of the patient, tailoring the image of a patient's head to find the best "window" to see inside the very bony (and therefore difficult to image) adult cranium.
WHAT IS DOPPLER RADAR: Doppler radar uses a well-known effect of light called the Doppler shift. Just as a train whistle will sound higher as it approaches a platform and then become lower in pitch as it moves away, light emitted by a moving object is perceived to increase in frequency (a blue shift) if it is moving toward the observer; if the object is moving away from us, it will be shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. Doppler radar sends out radio waves that bounce off objects in the air, such as raindrops or snow crystals, and then measures how much the frequency changes in returning radio waves to better determine wind direction and speed.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.