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Neural and psychophysiological correlates of human performance under stress and high mental workload

Abstract : In our anxiogenic and stressful world, the maintenance of an optimal cognitive performance is a constant challenge. It is particularly true in complex working environments (e.g. flight deck, air traffic control tower), where individuals have sometimes to cope with a high mental workload and stressful situations. Several models (i.e. processing efficiency theory, cognitive-energetical framework) have attempted to provide a conceptual basis on how human performance is modulated by high workload and stress/anxiety. These models predict that stress can reduce human cognitive efficiency, even in the absence of a visible impact on the task performance. Performance may be protected under stress thanks to compensatory effort, but only at the expense of a cognitive cost. Yet, the psychophysiological cost of this regulation remains unclear. We designed two experiments involving pupil diameter, cardiovascular and prefrontal oxygenation measurements. Participants performed the Toulouse N-back Task that intensively engaged both working memory and mental calculation processes under the threat (or not) of unpredictable aversive sounds. The results revealed that higher task difficulty (higher n level) degraded the performance and induced an increased tonic pupil diameter, heart rate and activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, and a decreased phasic pupil response and heart rate variability. Importantly, the condition of stress did not impact the performance, but at the expense of a psychophysiological cost as demonstrated by lower phasic pupil response, and greater heart rate and prefrontal activity. Prefrontal cortex seems to be a central region for mitigating the influence of stress because it subserves crucial functions (e.g. inhibition, working memory) that can promote the engagement of coping strategies. Overall, findings confirmed the psychophysiological cost of both mental effort and stress. Stress likely triggered increased motivation and the recruitment of additional cognitive resources that minimize its aversive effects on task performance (effectiveness), but these compensatory efforts consumed resources that caused a loss of cognitive efficiency (ratio between performance effectiveness and mental effort).
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Submitted on : Thursday, November 24, 2016 - 11:38:37 AM
Last modification on : Friday, January 10, 2020 - 9:08:47 PM
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Kevin Mandrick, Vsevolod Peysakhovich, Florence Rémy, Evelyne Lepron, Mickael Causse. Neural and psychophysiological correlates of human performance under stress and high mental workload. Biological Psychology, Elsevier, 2016, vol. 121, pp. 62-73. ⟨10.1016/j.biopsycho.2016.10.002⟩. ⟨hal-01402108⟩



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