INTRODUCTION: Human navigation is a very complex ability that encompasses all four stages of human information processing (sensory input, perception/cognition, selection, and execution of an action), involving both cognitive and physical requirements. During flight, the pilot uses all of these stages and one of the most critical aspect is interference. In fact, spatial tasks competing for the same cognitive resource cause greater distraction from a concurrent task than another task that uses different resource modalities.
METHODS: Here we compared and contrasted the performance of pilots and nonpilots of both genders performing increasingly complex navigational memory tasks while exposed to various forms of interference. We investigated the effects of four different sources of interference: motor, spatial motor, verbal, and spatial environment, focusing on gender differences.
RESULTS: We found that flight experts perform better than controls (Pilots: 6.50 ± 1.29; Nonpilots: 5.45 ± 1.41). Furthermore, in the general population, navigational working memory is compromised only by spatial environmental interference (Nonpilots: 4.52 ± 1.50); female nonpilots were less able than male nonpilots. Also, the flight expert group showed the same interference, even if reduced (Pilots: 5.24 ± 0.92); moreover, we highlighted a complete absence of gender-related effects.
DISCUSSION: Spatial environmental interference is the only interference producing a decrease in performance. Nevertheless, pilots are less affected than the general population. This is probably a consequence of the need to commit substantial cognitive resources to process spatial information during flight.
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