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Neuroscience study uncovers unique brainwave patterns in pilots

Viewing landing scenes appears to activate the “Mirror Neuron” system in pilots more than it does in non-pilots, according to preliminary research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The “Mirror Neuron” system is a network of neurons that are activated both during a motor action and also when observing a similar action performed by another person.

In the study, 9 pilots and 8 individuals with no piloting experience viewed landing scenes as researchers monitored their electrical brain activity. The scenes were viewed from the perspective of the cockpit, and the participants were asked to gauge the distance of the runway number.

“The use of a simple distance estimation task enabled us to easily include in the study a non-expert population to be compared with pilots, avoiding the potential complications that may arise from including technical flight-related aspects in the task,” the researchers explained.

The researchers observed differences between pilots and non-pilots in mu rhythm brainwaves. Mu brainwave patterns are considered a marker of Mirror Neuron system activity because they are suppressed whenever a person performs an action and they are also suppressed when a person observes someone else performing an action.

Pilots tended to have increased mu suppression when observing the landing scenes, indicating greater activation of the Mirror Neuron system.

But what is the significance of increased mirror neuron activation among pilots? As the researchers explain in their study, the findings suggests that the brains of pilots process aircraft as “a sort of extension of a pilot’s body.” Observing an aircraft landing might be like observing someone trying to reach for an object — in this case, “reaching” for a runway.

“Critically, in a landing task, the angle-under-the-horizon has the functional property to express the location of an aircraft in terms of glide angle to a specific point on the ground. This importantly, allows the pilot to directly differentiate between locations on the ground that are within the glide range and that can hence be reached with the airplane, from those that are outside the glide range, that are hence unreachable,” the researchers wrote.

“It follows that for a pilot, a seemingly perceptual task such as distance judgment is framed in terms of the action capabilities of an aircraft (e.g., the glide angle)… However, in the case of aviation, the action capabilities of the aircraft would not be generally experienced by most humans.”

The study, “Investigating Neural Sensorimotor Mechanisms Underlying Flight Expertise in Pilots: Preliminary Data From an EEG Study“, was authored by Mariateresa Sestito, Assaf Harel, Jeff Nador, and John Flach.