UC Professor’s Vigilance Research Leads to Membership on Panel that 'Watches Over' the Army
Joel Warm’s Army service decades ago fueled his passion for a career that has spanned more than 40 years. He’s answering Uncle Sam’s call again as he serves on a federal government panel with some of the most distinguished professionals in his field.
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Andrew Higley
University of Cincinnati Psychology Professor Joel Warm is the newest member of a committee that advises the U.S. government and the public on “critical national issues,” explored by the National Academy of Sciences. Warm was appointed to the National Research Council’s Panel on Soldier Systems under the council’s Army Research Laboratory Technical Assessment Board. The two-year commitment, a position of voluntary service, means Warm will serve on a panel that oversees and evaluates the research at the Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research & Engineering Directorate in Aberdeen, Md., the U.S. Army’s largest human factors research facility.
As a member of the panel, Warm will join other top national researchers in his field with evaluating the work of the lab and its impact on the cognitive fields of science and technology. The panel will also prepare a report on its findings.
Warm, who has spent more than 40 years researching human factors – a field that examines how people use technology – found his passion for his profession back in 1958 when he took a job as a research associate for the U.S. Army at the U.S. Army Medical Research Laboratory in Fort Knox, Ky. At that time, Warm says Fort Knox had the Army’s second-largest research facility in the country. That’s where he began researching how time is perceived, which evolved into his research into vigilance and performance on jobs that demand a constantly keen eye and sharp mind, such as air-traffic controllers, fighter pilots, security officers managing multiple monitors and even tasks that affect us all, such as driving.
Warm says he and fellow colleagues in the UC Psychology Department, including Professor Gerald Matthews, have done a great deal of research testing the theory that the act of vigilance “…uses up intellectual resources and they’re not being replenished.
“In vigilance, you’re constantly making decisions over and over again about whether or not what you’re looking at is a critical element,” he explains. “And what happens is, you’re using your information processing capacity and not replenishing it – you’re running out of information-processing gas.”
The U.S. Army has supported the UC Psychology Department’s testing of the theory and the U.S. Air Force has even provided high-tech equipment for the research. Warm says Transcranial Doppler Stenography uses high-frequency sound waves that the test subjects can’t hear to examine blood-flow in the brain during a vigilance task. Through this research, Warm says they’ve found that vigilance is paralleled by a decline in cerebral blood flow velocity. He compares it to what happens as the body exercises and builds up lactic acid, only in that case, heavy breathing brings in carbon dioxide to help the blood carry the residue away.
“In comparison, the more activity that’s performed mentally, the more glycogen gets broken down. The more carbon dioxide that’s building up, the faster the blood flow velocity carries it away, so we’re measuring brain activity during vigilance by looking at blood flow velocity,” he explains.
He adds that not everyone runs out of that information-processing gas, so additional research is examining why some people can perform vigilance tasks more efficiently than others. “The other dimension we’re looking at is training mechanisms – what may maintain people at a high performing level,” Warm says.
“Wait and react – it’s very difficult for humans to do that,” he says. “But in our society, this type of work has become more and more prevalent because we’ve switched from manual to supervisory control. It’s a complex problem and we’ve been lucky because we’ve found some new directions to explore.”
Warm joined the UC Psychology Department in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences in 1967 and says he was lured to UC by the groundbreaking work of Professor William Dember, former head of the Psychology Department and former dean of A&S, who was professor emeritus when he passed away in 2006. Warm and Dember became longtime friends and colleagues whose research into perception – and the power of peppermint in pepping up the drowsy – made national news. “That was one of the most famous papers I’ve ever published. After we found that peppermint enhanced performance, for years, there were signs around Cincinnati promoting the power of peppermint,” Warm says.
Warm recently returned from a meeting of the Panel on Soldiering Systems in Washington, D.C., where he discovered the systems he was exploring at Fort Knox over 40 years ago to improve performance of soldiers in the field are still evolving today.
Warm also serves on the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Factors.