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More eye-catching cockpits could help pilot performance

October 12, 2004 By Roxanne Khamsi This article courtesy of Nature News.

Brains respond faster when signals come from many discrete locations.

What is the best way to get someone's attention? Vibrant colours do wonders for animals trying to attract mates, but when it comes to urgent messages, our brains seem to process information best with the help of cues from lots of different locations. Neuroscientists hope to use the finding to design cockpits that improve the response time of pilots.

At present, most dashboards are designed on the assumption that combining several features into one visual object is the most efficient way to alert someone to a change. For example, they might use one object that changes its colour in several ways. But Greg Davis of the University of Cambridge, UK, has discovered that this is not the best method.

Davis suggests that increasing the number of objects in a display, giving each a specific role, could be a better way to help people cope with multiple visual cues.

He points out that changes within a particular object, as used by conventional dashboards, are detected by a brain pathway known as the parvocellular (ventral) route. But there is a second pathway in the brain that also spots changes in the environment, called the magnocellular (dorsal) route. This responds to changes in objects' relations to each other.

The magnocellular pathway is thought to be the faster of the two, so Davis has carried out a series of experiments testing whether people respond faster to a display that specifically stimulates this pathway instead. He found that, in many cases, they do. A review of his work is published online in Philosophical Transactions A1.

For example, in one experiment, Davis created a computer display consisting of several circles. One of the circles had a notch cut out of it. In the test, a second notch either appeared in the same circle (stimulating the 'within object' pathway), or in a second circle (stimulating the 'between objects' pathway).

Davis found that volunteers responded to the change around 100 milliseconds faster when the notches appeared in separate circles.

He now hopes to apply his findings by designing cockpit displays that stimulate both brain pathways. For example he will use objects that flicker on and off as well as changing colour.

Though the idea represents a sharp divergence from prior thinking, it makes sense to go for both types of cue, according to Joshua Solomon who studies visual science at the City University in London. "You can increase salience by changing some object on multiple dimensions," he says. "If you make the object flash, you have a third dimension."


  1. Phil T., et al. R. Soc. Lond. A , 362. 1 - 18 (2004).

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