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Pilots display a different pattern of functional connectivity in the brain, according to new research conducted in China. The new studies examined interactions and synchronized activity between different areas of the brain, and the findings suggest that pilots tend to have enhanced cognitive flexibility compared to their non-flying counterparts.
“Civil aviation is a distinctive career. Pilots work in a complex, dynamic information environment. They must be aware of all the relevant information regarding this environment and recognize their meaning and importance,” said the authors of the new research in an article published in
Because of the cognitive demands placed on pilots, the researchers hypothesized that they would display a different pattern of brain connectivity compared to non-pilots.
The researchers used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging, a widely used tool for investigating spontaneous brain activity, to examine important neurocognitive networks in 26 pilots and 24 non-flying individuals who had a similar level of education.
Fourteen of the pilots were flight instructors from the Civil Aviation Flight University of China, while 12 pilots were first officers at airlines.
Compared to the control group, the pilots exhibited decreased functional connectivity the central executive network and enhanced functional connections the central executive network, salience network, and default mode network.
The decreased connectivity within the central executive network, which is associated with self-control and appraisal of threatening stimuli, “might enable the network to have more diverse functions,” the researchers said. On the other hand, the increased connectivity between the central executive network, salience network, and default mode network might be related to general cognitive performance.
In a similar study, published in , the researchers found that pilots also exhibited increased resting-state functional connectivity the default mode network. The network has been referred to as the brain’s “autopilot” because of its link to mind-wandering and self-referential thought. It also appears to play an important role in switching between cognitive tasks.
“Pilots are always working in complex, dynamic environments. Flying is now not so much a ‘physical job,’ but a high-level cognitive activity. The pilot should be completely aware of all conditions in real time, and be ready to deal with various potential emergencies,” the researchers explains.
“These processes include continuous cognitive transitions, which are exactly the function of the DMN. Daily flying practice may activate the pilot’s DMN repeatedly and, ultimately, strengthen its activation level during the resting state.”