Mental Mastery in Space: Cognitive Skills and Training for Aspiring Astronauts
As space exploration evolves, the cognitive skills of astronauts become even more paramount. This article delves into the cognition tasks that space agencies employ to determine an astronaut's suitability for space missions. The discussion not only touches on the specific cognitive skills required but also offers advice on how to prepare for such assessments.
Understanding Cognitive Performance in Space
Cognition is a term that encapsulates the mental processes individuals use to gain knowledge and comprehension. For astronauts, certain cognitive skills, which vary according to the specific space agency, are vital for their challenging tasks. Some of the core skills include:
- Attention: Astronauts must maintain intense focus over extended periods. For instance, during spacewalks, they need to accurately and swiftly execute tasks they've practiced for hundreds of hours.
- Memory: Both short-term and long-term memory are essential. Whether it's executing instructions from mission control immediately or recalling vital information hours later, astronauts' memory abilities are tested to their limits.
- Orientation: In the vastness of space, especially in microgravity conditions, astronauts need a keen spatial awareness. They must be able to visualize tasks or objects in 3D and be oriented with their environment.
- Psychomotor Ability: This refers to the combination of cognitive and physical skills. From piloting spacecrafts to conducting tasks under pressure, an astronaut's psychomotor skills are always in demand.
Testing Cognitive Abilities in Astronaut Selection
During the astronaut selection process, candidates may undergo tests designed for specific cognitive skills like memory. They might also engage in simulated activities like robotics tasks that test multiple skills. Typically:
- Attention tests often require candidates to balance accuracy and speed when reacting to information.
- Memory assessments involve committing a task to memory and performing it later, or remembering increasingly large amounts of varied information.
- Orientation tests could be computer-based or physical, depending on the agency.
- Psychomotor ability tests range from hand-eye coordination tasks to simulations under increasing complexity.
Below is an outline of general preparation tips as well as specific resources for each of those four areas.
General tips to preparing for cognitive testing
- Limit Distractions: Try to increase the amount of time that you don’t look at your mobile phone or other distractions to hone your ability to focus.
- Build Resilience: Practice maintaining consistent concentration over long periods, ranging from 1 to 8 hours.
- Optimize Breaks: Understand how your brain best recovers from strenuous work. You may benefit from breathing exercises, visualisations, or meditative mantras. Whatever your recovery method of choice, it’s important to get the most out of the rest periods in the testing process to ensure you are ready for the next task.
- Manage Caffeine Intake: Determine the right caffeine dose for the long test days.
- Strategise social Interactions: Decide in advance how you want to interact with others applicants at the testing center — whether you want to make conversation and what topics you want to discuss (e.g., how the test is going). Having a plan ahead of time can help you avoid situations that may cause undue anxiety and ensure your confidence and focus aren’t disrupted. During this phase of the process, you aren’t being assessed on your social skills, so do what is right for your individual performance.
If you are someone who finds concentrating difficult, or you are doing a task and have lost focus without being aware of it, working on this skill will be important for you. Conversely, if you are someone that is in a role that requires maintaining a high level of attention for prolonged periods of time is an important skill (e.g., pilot, driver, surgeon), this doesn’t need to be a high priority for your preparations. Typically working on any attention task will be beneficial, even if you’re not sure what specific task will be tested.
TIPS FOR IMPROVING
- Flight simulator games
- General attention training: Brain training, Mentalup Online Games
- General attention tests: Bourdon tests
- Specific testing: Perceptual speed, Triangle test
If you are generally forgetful, and can’t remember what happened even a few hours ago, this may be the most helpful training for you. In some professions however, short term and long-term memory are consistently being challenged (e.g., remembering something for a few seconds and then inputting it into a system, or consistently learning new information and implementing it at a later stage), and therefore may not be a focus for your training.
The good news is, any improvement made to short-term memory (up to 30 seconds, or longer if practiced) leads to improvements in long-term memory (minutes or hours for testing, but days weeks and years for retention of information).
TIPS FOR IMPROVING SHORT-TERM MEMORY
- Everyday changes: each time you receive a code on your phone, remember it and input the numbers, rather than having the phone do it for you. When copying and pasting on your laptop, try to remember and recite instead.
- Short-term memory training: CogniFit
- Short-term memory testing: Memory span test (audible short term memory), written test, Images test, visual memory capacity
TIPS FOR IMPROVING LONG-TERM MEMORY
- Everyday changes: try to remember things that technology has made it easier for us to forget, including phone numbers and email addresses.
- Memory palace technique
- Memorization strategies used by competitive memorizers
- Visual memory test practice
If you sometimes get disorientated or find motor skill tasks difficult (like team sports, or reverse parking a car), this may be the area for you to focus on. Professions such as pilots, adventurous training instructors, and certain military groups may not have difficulty with this.
TIPS FOR IMPROVING
Computer games (specifically those that include piloting), spacecraft docking simulation.
- Sports that require perceptual awareness (team sports and some racket sports)
- Skydiving (accelerated free fall course)
- Trampolining / gymnastics / freestyle snowboarding or skiing (turning in space / orientating your body and being aware of the space around you)
- Orientation testing: cube rotation test, spatial orientation
All applicants should look to develop this, even those who feel it is an area of strength. Psychomotor ability takes significant repetition in order to improve. For the test, applicants much feel comfortable with diverting attention away from the main task in order to deal with a peripheral tasks, while also listening to audible cues, actioning commands, monitoring different systems and making necessary adjustments.
TIPS FOR IMPROVING
- Team sports (especially those requiring hand-eye coordination)
- Manual tasks that require dexterity (e.g., carpentry, pottery)
- Computer games, in particular piloting and multi-tasking, those that use a joystick or external controls
- Attaining a pilot license (helicopter or fixed wing aircraft) will certainly improve these skills, but will take time and a greater expense
- Psychomotor testing – monitoring and instrument coordination , control and coordination
Being an astronaut demands an exceptional level of cognitive prowess. While certain professions naturally hone some of these skills, specific training and awareness are crucial for those aspiring to navigate the challenges of space. Fortunately, there are many resources and every-day tasks available to increase your cognitive strength.