Effect of varying levels of mental workload on startle eyeblink modulation
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Previous research using punctuate reaction time and counting tasks has found that the startle eyeblink reflex is sensitive to attentional demands. The present experiment explored whether startle eyeblink is also modulated during a complex continuous task and is sensitive to different levels of mental workload. Participants (N = 14) performed a visual horizontal tracking task either alone (single-task condition) or in combination with a visual gauge monitoring task (multiple-task condition) for three minutes. On some task trials, the startle eyeblink reflex was elicited by a noise burst. Results showed that startle eyeblink was attenuated during both tasks and that the attenuation was greater during the multiple-task condition than during the single-task condition. Subjective ratings, endogenous eyeblink rate, heart period, and heart period variability provided convergent validity of the workload manipulations. The findings suggest that the startle eyeblink is sensitive to the workload demands associated with a continuous visual task. The application of startle eyeblink modulation as a workload metric and the possibility that it may be diagnostic of workload demands in different stimulus modalities is discussed.
© 2002 Taylor & Francis. This is the author-manuscript version of the paper. Reproduced in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher. Please refer to the journal's website for access to the definitive, published version.