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Monday, 13 February 2012

Earthquakes and human cognitive performance

Science Daily, an on-line science news service, has a report on New Zealand research done into the impact of a natural disaster (September 4, 2010 earthquake) on the ability of individuals to assess and respond to situations.

Psychology department Associate Professor William Helton, and PhD student James Head, were investigating  human performance prior to the September earthquake, which fell between the first and second round of tests. This presented an opportunity to see to what extent the earthquake affected their performance.

Some selective quotes from the Science Daily report:
"In their upcoming Human Factors article, "Earthquakes on the Mind: Implications of Disasters for Human Performance," researchers William S. Helton and James Head from the University of Canterbury explore how cognitive performance can decline after earthquakes and other natural disasters.
"We were conducting a [different] study on human performance requiring two sessions," said Helton. "In the midst of the study, between the two sessions, we had a substantial local earthquake, which resulted in the rare opportunity to do a before/after study. We were quick to seize the opportunity."
The researchers measured participants' cognitive control by asking them to either press a button corresponding to numbers presented on a video screen or to withhold a response to a preselected number presented on the same screen. Normally, participant performance would improve during the second session, but the authors found an increase in errors of omission following the earthquake.
"Presumably people are under increased cognitive load after a major disaster," Helton continued. "Processing a disaster during tasks is perhaps similar to dual-tasking, like driving and having a cell phone conversation at the same time, and this can have consequences."
This is banality raised to a fine art. One wonders what the use of it is. Comparing the increased cognitive load of an earthquake with a mundane form of dual tasking suggests a lack of appreciation of both the gravity, and long duration, of the consequences of earthquakes. From rescue, to recovery, to rebuild, to rebuilt is a very long journey.

In our context, a damaging earthquake is both a brief catastrophic event and a catastrophic series of encounters consisting of personal loss, unexplained nature, bureaucracy, financial loss, powerlessness, oppression, and obstructions. The earthquake is instantly damaging, dealing with the processes of personal recovery in the face of uncertainty and obstructions is a period measured in years. For some, personal recovery will never be accomplished in full.

The February 22nd earthquake and its aftermath is where research is required. Impaired performance has been with us constantly from that day, and will continue for an unknown period. Better science with improved focus is needed to measure what is happening to individuals, and also the medium to long term consequences for them, their families, society, and our health, welfare and financial support institutions

The news article is here.

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