Sometimes planes thump onto the runway. The wheels smack into the ground — bam! Other times planes bounce down — ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump. And once in awhile, in those most beautiful of landings, planes simply float down, the wheels gently stroke the runway, the transition from air to ground seamless and smooth.
Those landings are more likely to occur when an experienced pilot is at the helm. The experience allows top pilots to accurately assess their surroundings, while displaying less brain activity than less experienced pilots, according to a study published recently in PLOS One.
A team led by Stanford and VA Palo Alto Health Care System researchers used an fMRI machine to examine the mental activity of 20 pilots as they landed planes using a flight simulator. A Stanford release explains the study:
The trial started the pilots at 350 feet of altitude. They were instructed to begin their descent based only on their instrument readings, as would be typical in most real-life flights. Once they reached 200 feet — the altitude at which the Federal Aviation Administration mandates you must be able to clearly see the runway in order to land — the program would display the runway, either clearly or obscured by varying degrees of fog.
The pilots would then need to flash their gaze from the instruments to the runway and back to make a snap decision about whether or not it would be safe to continue the approach.
Landings are the most dangerous part of a flight. The study showed that the more experienced pilots made correct landing decisions 80 percent of the time, while displaying only half as much brain activity. The newer pilots made correct landing decisions 64 percent of the time:
“The data show that the expert pilot seems to just know what to look for, where to look and when to look,” said Stanford psychiatrist Maheen Adamson, PhD... “And we’ve been able to trace that skill back to the caudate nucleus.”
This is an area of the brain involved in regulating gaze as the eyes quickly shift their focus to different fixed objects. The work needs to be replicated to confirm the caudate nucleus’s role in instrument scanning, Adamson added.
Adamson noted that pilot training programs may be able to improve performance using brain imaging techniques in the future.
Previously: Medical mystery solved: Stanford clinicians identify source of Navy pilot's puzzling symptoms, Being bilingual "provides the brain built-in exercise" and Image of the Week: Uncovering brain-imaging inaccuracies
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