One of the tremendous challenges of neuroscience is to find better ways for our brain to interact with the world. The difficulty lies in the fact that we don’t know how our brain reacts and handles everyday situations. We see our hands and know what they can and cannot grab as well as the most effective way to do it. But we don’t see our brain, and despite years of research, we even struggle to understand how this one operates during sleep.
Neuroergonomics is interested in the evolution of our brain in its environment. It is a merge between neuroscience and ergonomics, which aim, on the one hand, to understand brain function underlying human performance in its everyday tasks. On the other hand, design a physical world that promotes a more fruitful interaction with the mind.
You know how your hands work. You know that you can’t touch your grip with your little finger, that you must use more than two-finger to hold a cup of coffee over your computer. We are all experts at using it to manipulate various shapes of objects. And when this is not the case, we add handles. We add handles to cups of coffee, bags, suitcase, every objects that we find difficult to hold with our hands.
Just like our hands, our brain has blind spots, difficult operating angles, and sometimes needs handles to lift knowledge objects. We haven’t figure out how to use it as efficiently as our hands, but we know a lot more than we did a hundred years ago. Still, many of today’s—which are no less essential—fields have little considerations for the mind. Education, cities, jobs, transportation are all very late. All the more compared to Social media, Streaming platforms, Video game producers, and other Silicon Valley monsters’ tech companies that have understood before everybody the importance of Neuroergonomics.
The objectif of Neuroergonomics
How to make school as captivating as Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? How to make learning as enjoyable as video games? Avoid burnout? Make cities as restful and relaxing as the countryside? All, can and should take advantage of Neuroergonomics. But these require profound systemic changes that are way beyond our control. However, I believe that it is not a stretch to hope that in the next few years, these will change and allow a much better exchange.
Neuroergonomics can change everything, and you don’t need to be the President of the United-States to see them happening. All the people you call “prodigy”; there are not so different from you. Very often, they have just learned how to use their brain more ergonomically.
Rüdiger Gamm is a mental arithmetic prodigy. Unlike you and me, he doesn’t only use his working memory when it comes to mentally handling mathematical objects. He sorts of overclock his brain by adding his episodic and visual-spatial memory, allowing him to deal with higher mental loads. Not to mention the hours of practice to reach his level, I’m sure thought we can all become much better. I mean better in mental arithmetic, yes, but also, in most areas of our life, If we take the time to Neuroergonomically analyze them.
The Neuroergonomics of memory
The life events that comprise our individual, personal history always have a spatial context. We evolve in space. We spend all our time somewhere, and when you think about it, our visual-spatial memory is definitively impressive. Right now, If I asked you where your toothbrush is, I bet you are perfectly capable of telling me its exact positions. The same applies to almost all your objects. You have also memorized the route to the nearest supermarket or to your family and friends, the pet shop, etc. All, without any particular efforts! As impressive as it may sound, it is not a surprising superpower. Before GPS, knowing our way home, to food, to water was something vital. It is how mother nature endowed us with this power.
On the other hand, human being always wants more. Having this incredible ability to remember things positions in a 3D space wasn’t enough. They requested to remember more ways to make fire, to cook foods, more stories to tell, more information to gather, more knowledge to learn. There was a time when memory have a sacred place. In antiquity, to know “The Iliad and The Odyssey,” the bible or the koran was a great virtue practicing by the most learned people. Furthermore, learning has long been practiced orally because of the scarcity of papers. For all these reasons, it is not surprising that memory optimization was an intriguing subject long before the arrival of neurosciences.
Method of loci
The first work about memory is probably the “Method of loci,” a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises. This method, also known under the name of “memory palace,” initially consisted of placing the elements you want to memorize into an imaginary but real and familiar place. Don’t you think it feels like merging visual-spatial memory with what initially doesn’t require it?
With this upcoming field that is neuroscience and especially neuroimaging, scientists had quickly wanted to break the secrets of memory. The best way they have found to do this is to study the prodigies like Nelson Dellis, who can memorize 248-digit numbers in just 5 minutes. They first noticed that all—including Dellis—don’t consider themselves as gifted people. They all report using variants of the method of loci. So naturally, they have wanted to check whether or not visual-spatial memory has something to do with it.
The neuroscientist and father of neuroergonomics Raja Parasuraman has highlighted similarities between the areas of the brain stimulated by London taxi drivers and memory athletes. Experts of navigation, like London taxi drivers, who have to remember 320 routes linking over 25,000 streets appear to activate more the area of the hippocampus than normal navigators. The same applies between expert memorizers and normal ones. According to what we know, the hippocampus would act as a gate between short-term memory and long-term memory but also as an internal GPS. It plays a crucial role in the consolidation of information as well as for navigation in space.
Thus, to manage a large amount of information, it is not ergonomic to use only our working memory—that can play with only 5 to 7 items for a short period. Still yet, it’s the default operating mode. The tricks lie in the spatialization of information. Using the bodybuilder on steroids of memories—the visual-spatial memory—is what is translated by a superior activity of the hippocampus. And that’s what the method of loci precisely encourages to do. If you want to memorize something, spatialize it first!
The Neuroergonomics of mental arithmetic
What is true for memorization seems to be true for mental arithmetic too. The image below shows an energy consumption comparison of Rüdiger Gamm’s brain versus non-expert calculators ones while doing moderate mental calculations. The red parts are the prodigy use regions while others not. And the green are the ones everybody uses.
Visual parts are more active in the brain of Rüdiger Gamm while doing calculations like 10×14 than in non-expert calculator’s one.
Which again, would mean that the better you spatialize calculus, the easier you can solve them. The question is: How? Is there a mental calculation method similar to the method of loci? The answer is yes.
I’m sure you’ve already seen a video like this, where Asiatic’s children swing their hands to do speed mental calculations.
In fact, they use a technique called “Mental Abacus.” This one consists of visualizing a Chinese abacus to carry mental calculations. For those who do not know it, abacuses are old calculating tools used before the adoption of the written Arabic numeral system. By manipulating beans in rods embedded in a wooden frame, calculations even involving numbers of several digits becomes effortless to perform. A kind of ancestor of the calculator.
With a mental abacus, calculations become tangible. So, as soon as one has the ability to manipulating beads on an imaginary abacus, one can carry out more complex mental calculations faster.
The virtues of the Chinese abacus
Reported to increase thinking visually, concentration, and the working memory of children that learn it, the mental abacus would also appear to have beneficial ripple effects. According to Ms. Shizuko Amaiwa, a professor that study it for years, Mental Abacus learning also:
- Raise marks due to improvement in memory of spatial arrangement: Training to obtain the abacus image visually had the effect of making students sensitive to spatial adjustments. Good for one’s memory, as seen above.
- Improve numerical memory: Better memorization of numbers thanks to abacus visualization.
- Ease progress in solving elementary mathematical problems: Children spend more time and energy trying to solve a problem rather than using them to calculate.
From a neuroscience point of view, some studies have shown that using Abacus-based mental calculation empowers our working memory. Abacus trained children performed better on visual-spatial working memory tasks than non-abacus trained children . There is also a strong correlation between this one and mental calculation performances (see ). Spatialization of calculations this time would result in better individual performance at resolving them.
Meaning that visual-spatial working memory activities during mental calculation would play an important role to measure someone’s performance at it. The mental abacus technique is to mental calculations what the method of loci is to memorization. Both empower our poor little working memory. Both balance the use of our brain so that we can use it more ergonomically.
I think these are perfect examples to illustrate how easy it is to use your brain more intelligently. But don’t illustrate a limited scope of application. Neuroergonomics can be much broader than that. So in another completely different area. Introducing:
The neuroergonomics of Breathing
Wim Hof is a Dutch extreme athlete, also known as “The Iceman.” He is the author of 21 Guinness world records that revolve around extreme temperature exposure. Among them: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts. Running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot. Climbing the highest mountains in the world while wearing only shorts.
While one’s would think that Hof is a strangeness of nature, a kind of biological error that has turned out well, it turns out that for him, anyone has a potential similar to him. It led him to build a method to teach cold resistance. In fact, it doesn’t stop here. Cold is just a part. The real aim for Wim Hof is to give people a way to stimulate these deep physiological processes. Among them the ability to resist freezing temperatures with almost no clothing. The central element in all this is certainly breathing, and meditation.
Breathing makes you resistant to cold exposure
Breathing is a part of the autonomic nervous system which regulates functions such as our immune system, digestion, the dilation and contraction of the blood vessels, and the heartbeat. Wim Hof claims that his method—that can be practiced by everyone—acts on the autonomic nervous system and so, enable getting one’s hand on unused body functions. And until now, science appears to be on his side.
In fact, many studies confirmed Hof’s statement. When exposed to cold, the human body can increase heat production by shivering, or by burning brown fat in order to convert chemical energy into heat. Scientists have found that the brother of Wim Hof—which does not expose himself to extreme temperature—had rises of 40% brown fat activity when using the method. This is 10% more than young adults, and with caution, it is so possible to declare that forceful breathing increases body temperature, and meditation help to sustain this effect.
Breathing reduces the response of your immune system
But what I find even more impressive is a study showing how the Wim Hof method can suppress immune system response to an endotoxin. When injected in subjects, endotoxins ordinarily stimulate rapid immune system response, causing flu-like symptoms like fever, headaches, and shivering. However, when injected in Wim Hof or Hof’s students—trained for 4 days with his technique—almost nothing happens.
According to current medical opinion, the immune system—which is a part of the autonomic nervous system—currently not be consciously influenced. Therefore, it would mean that it is also not possible to influence the immune system. So what happen?
The breathing technique that Wim practice influence the ratio between O2 and CO2. Doing it will increase your level of O2 at the expense of the level of CO2. Thus, the PH-value in the blood will increases (whereas the acidity will lessens). It is common, but additional results were obtained when E-coli bacteria—the endotoxin—were injected. Something unexpected that may have been triggered by this PH-value shift.
During the experiment, the amount of stress hormone has increase (translated by higher cortisol rate in the bloodstream), which have suppress the natural response from the immune system (characterize by a decrease of inflammatory proteins in the blood). In the end, what usually results in an over-reaction by the immune system turned out at mild headaches.
What we can learn from Wim Hof is almost outside the context of neuroergonomics. I believe, however, that it has its part to play in it. Breathing has multiple benefits like we’ve seen, and for Hof, what we have found is just the tip of the iceberg. He thinks that meditation and breathing could, in the future, eradicated depressions and other mental diseases. So for lack of having talked about meditation, you’ve at least this cue; BREATHING. Without going as far as cold resistance and the immune system’s influence, learning how to breathe in critical moments is a powerful neuroergonomics move too.
And there are lots more neuroergonomics principles I will not mention in this article, and another bunch of others that are still out there unknown…