9/16/2009

The ripple effects of missing sensory input

Sensory perception is about more than just knowing facts about your environment. As the bottom-level source of information, it pervades just about every function our mind performs. It affects one's emotions, ability to reason about real-world and academic situations, and sense of self. Yet it's hard to see how crucial sensory perception is until something goes wrong.

A New York Times article illustrates the ripple effects that occur when people are cut off from relevant sensory perception. Some of the US military's pilots and crew for Predator drones aren't deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead, they pilot their drones remotely from an Air Force base. They also don't perform takeoffs and landings, which are handled overseas. It would seem like these pilots get a great deal. They can avoid the danger and stress of overseas combat. So they should be less fatigued and burned out than pilots in Iraq and Afghanistan, right?

Wrong. Remotely operating crews had "significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout" compared to crews with a pilot on board. The Air Force implemented a new shift system, giving more days off, with no improvement. Teleoperating crews had a "pervasive problem with chronic fatigue" to the point where it could "be expected to adversely impact job performance and safety," and they also had "impaired domestic relationships."

It turns out that remote flying is confusing and mentally exhausting because pilots are missing a lot of the sensory cues that pilots get when they're actually in their planes. While they get visuals from cameras mounted on the planes, they lack cues from their sense of touch and place. Out of 95 Predator "mishaps and safety incidents" reported to the Air Force over an eight-year period, 57% of crew-related mishaps were "consistent with situation awareness errors associated with perception of the environment." Or as the New York Times puts it: "it's hard to grasp your environment when you're not actually in it."

Most people, of course, aren't so cut off from relevant sensory information. But what about people whose eyes and ears function fine, but whose brains don't provide them with accurate information about the location of their bodies in space and in relation to other objects in their environment? Would they experience a milder version of the stress, confusion, exhaustion, and errors that these Air Force pilots did? If so, could this New York Times article help parents, teachers, colleagues, and friends understand what these people experience?