Physiological Indicators of Mental Workload

  • Holger Ursin
  • Reidun Ursin
Part of the NATO Conference Series book series (NATOCS, volume 8)


From a physiological point of view, a mental load, whatever that is, must be assumed to be a load on processes within the central nervous system (CNS). A load on this CNS could affect the activity of the CNS machinery, the energy requirements and metabolism of that machinery, their wear and tear, and therefore, the restitution of the machinery. Since the CNS exists within a body, there are possibilities that the effects on the CNS may also affect other bodily processes than those strictly concerned with information processing in the CNS. This raises possibilities of measuring the load since physiological processes in general are quite easy to monitor. In this chapter, we will describe and discuss some of the methods used for evaluating these processes, in particular those with which we have personal experience. In their position paper to this meeting, Sheridan and Stassen listed three mental load definitions which involved physiological processes. These are the information processing workload, the emotional workload and the energy workload. The “mental workload” following their definition comprises both the information processing and the emotional workload. Their energy workload is linked to effector processes only.


Reticular Formation Slow Wave Sleep Mental Workload Physical Workload Physiological Indicator 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ax, A,F, The physiological differentiation between fear and anger in humans. Psychosomatic Medicine 1953, 15: 433–442.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Baade, E., Ellertsen, B., Johnsen, T.B. and Ursin, H. Physiology, psychology and performance. In: Ursin, H., Baade, E. and Levine, S. (eds.): Coping men - a study in human psychobiology. San Francisco, Academic Press, to appear in 1978.Google Scholar
  3. Baekeland, F., Koulack, D. and Lasky, R. Effects of a stressful presleep experience on electroencephalograph–recorded sleep. Psychophysiology 1968, 4: 436–443.Google Scholar
  4. Blix, A,S., Stromme, S.B.and Ursin, H. Additional heart rate–an indicator of psychological activation. Aerospace Medicine 1974, 45: 1219–1222.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Bohlin, G. Monotonous stimulation, sleep onset and habituation of the orienting reaction. Electroencephalography and clinical Neurophysiology 1971, 31: 593–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brodal, A. The reticular formation of the brain stem. Anatomical aspects and functional correlations. Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, 1957.Google Scholar
  7. Coover, G.D. Ursin, H. and Levine, S. Plasma-corticosterone levels during active-avoidance learning in rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 1973, 82: 170–174.Google Scholar
  8. Fenz, W.D. Strategies for coping with stress. In Sarason, I.G. and Spielberger, C.D. (eds.): Stress and anxiety Vol. 2. Hemisphere (Wiley) New York, 1975.Google Scholar
  9. Fishbein, W. Kastaniotis, C. and Chattman, D. Paradoxical sleep: prolonged augmentation following learning. Brain Research, 1974, 79: 61–75.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Folkow, R. Central neurohormonal mechanisms in spontaneously hypertensive rats compared with human essential hypertension. Clinical Science and Molecular Medicine 1975, 48: 205s - 214s.Google Scholar
  11. Folkow, B., Häggendal, J. and Lisander, B. Extent of release and elimination of noradrenaline at peripheral adrenergic nerve terminals. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 1967, supp1.307: 1–38.Google Scholar
  12. Goodenough, D.R., Witkin, H.A. Koulack, D. and Cohen, H. The effects of stress films on dream affect and on respiration and eye-movement activity during rapid-eye-movement sleep. Psychophysiology (1975), 12, 313–320.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hansen, J.R. St(6a, K.F. Blix, A.S. and Ursin, H. Urinary levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine in parachutist trainees. In Ursin, H., Baade, E. and Levine, S. (eds.). Coping men - a study in human psychobiology. San Francisco, Academic Press, to appear in 1978.Google Scholar
  14. Hauri, P. Effects of evening activity on early night sleep. Psychophysiology 1968, 4: 267–277Google Scholar
  15. Hauri, P, The influence of evening activity on the onset of sleep. Psychophysiology 1969, 5: 426–430.Google Scholar
  16. Hebb, D,O. Drives and the CNS (conceptual nervous system) Psychological Review, 1955, 62: 243–254.Google Scholar
  17. Hennevin, E., Leconte, P. et Bloch, V. Augmentation du sommeil paradoxal provoquée par l’acquisition, l’extinction et la reaquisition d’un apprentissage â renforcement positif. Brain Research 1974, 70: 43–54.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kandel, E.R. Nerve cells and behavior. Scientific American 1970, 223 (No. 1): 57–70.Google Scholar
  19. Kjellberg, A. Sleep deprivation and some aspects of performance: III. Motivation, comment and conclusions. Waking and sleeping 1977, I: 149–153.Google Scholar
  20. Lacey, J.I. Individual differences in somatic response patterns. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology 1950, 43: 338–350.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Leconte, P., Hennevin, E. et Block, V. Analyse des effets d’un apprentissage et de son niveau d’acquisition sur le sommeil paradoxal consécutif. Brain Research, 1973, 49, 367–379.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Levine, S., Goldman, L. and Coover, G.D. Expectancy and the pituitary-adrenal system. In Ciba Foundation Symposium: Physiology, emotion and psychosomatic illness z Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1972. pp. 281–291.Google Scholar
  23. Lindsley, D.B. Emotion. In Stevens, S (ed): Handbook of experimental psychology New York, Wiley, 1951, pp. 473–516.Google Scholar
  24. Lord, B.J., King, M.G. and Pfeister, H.P. Chemical sympathectomy and two-way escape and avoidance learning in the rat. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology 1976, 90: 303–316.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lucero, M.A. Lengthening of REM sleep duration consecutive to learning in the rat. Brain Research 1970, 20: 319–322.Google Scholar
  26. Lykken, D.T. Neuropsychology and psychophysiology in personality research. In E.F. Borgatta Lambert, W.W. (eds.) Handbook of personality theory and research. Chicago, Rand McNally, 1968.Google Scholar
  27. Malmo, R.B. Studies of anxiety: Some clinical origins of the activation concept. In Spielberger, C.D. (ed.) Anxiety and behavior, New York, Academic Press, 1966, pp. 157–177.Google Scholar
  28. McGinty, D.J. Encephalization and the neural control of sleep. In Sterman, M.B., McGinty, D.J. and Adinolfi, A.M. (eds.) Brain Development and Behavior. New York, Academic Press, 1971, pp. 335–357.Google Scholar
  29. Moruzzi, G. and Magoun, H.W. Brain stem reticular formation and activation of the EEG. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology 1949, 1: 455–473Google Scholar
  30. Nuckolls, K.B., Cassel, J., and Kaplan, B.H. Psychosocial assets, life crisis and the prognosis of pregnancy. American Journal of Epidemiology 1972, 95: 431–441.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Oswald, I. Human brain protein, drugs and dreams. Nature 1969, 223: 893–897.Google Scholar
  32. Risberg, J. and Ingvar, H. Increase of blood flow in cortical association areas during memorization and abstract thinking. European Neurology, 1971/72, 6: 236–241.Google Scholar
  33. Rule, B.G. and Nesdale, A.R. Environmental stressors, emotional arousal and aggression. In Sarason, I.G. and Spielberger C.D. (eds.) Stress and anxiety, Vol. 3, Hemisphere, New York 1976.Google Scholar
  34. Sassin, J.F. Parker, D.C., Mace, J.W., Gotlin, R.W., Johnson, L.C. and Rossman, L.G. Human growth hormone release: Relation to slow-wave sleep and sleep-waking cycles. Science 1969, 165: 513–515.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Schachter, J. Pain, fear and anger in hypertensives and normotensives. A psychophysiological study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1957, 19: 17–29.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Schacther, SO, and Singer, JoEo Cognitive, social and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review 1962, 69: 379–399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Smith, C., Kitahama, K., Valatx, J.L., Jouvet, M. Increased paradoxical sleep in mice during acquisition of a shock avoidance task. Brain Research, 1974, 77: 221–230.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sokolov, Y.N. Perception and the conditional reflex. Oxford,Pergamon, 1963.Google Scholar
  39. Strqmme, S., Wikeby, P., Blix, A.S. and Ursin, H. Additional heart rate. In Ursin, H., Baade, E. and Levine, S. (eds.) Coping men - a study in human psychobiology. San Francisco, Academic Press, to appear in 1978.Google Scholar
  40. Tagney, J. Sleep patterns related to rearing rats in enriched and impoverished environments. Brain Research 1973, 53: 353–361.Google Scholar
  41. Theorell, T. Selected illnesses and somatic factors in relation to two psychosocial stress indices–a prospective study on middle-aged construction building workers. Journal of Psycho-somatic Research 1976, 20, 7–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Thompson, R.F. and Spencer, W.A. Habituation: A model phenomenon for the study of neuronal substrates of behavior. Psychological Review 1966, 73: 16–43.Google Scholar
  43. Ursin, H. Activation, coping and health. In Ursin, H., Baade, E. and Levine, S. (eds.). Coping men - a study in human psychobiology. San Francisco, Academic Press,.toappearin1978.Google Scholar
  44. Ursin, H., Baade, E. and Levine, S. (eds.) Coping men - a study in human psychobiology. San Francisco, Academic Press, loappear ín 1978Google Scholar
  45. Ursin, H., Wester, K. and Ursin, R. Habituation to electrical stimulation of the brain in unanaesthetized cats. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology,1967 23: 41–49.Google Scholar
  46. Ursin, R.. The two stages of slow wave sleep in the cat and their relation to REM sleep. Brain Research 1968, 11, 347–356.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ursin, R. Sleep stage relations within the sleep cycles of the cat. Brain Research 1970, 20: 91–97.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Ursin, R0, Ursin, He and Hamre, E. No effect of two hours of intense environmental stimulation on subsequent sleep in the cat. Sleep Research, 1977, 6. (in press).Google Scholar
  49. Vollmer, F. Motivational and psychological arousal. In Ursin, H., Baade, E. and Levine, S. (eds.). Coping men - a study of human psychobiology. San Francisco, Academic Press, to appear in 1978.Google Scholar
  50. Weiss, J.M. Influence of psychological variables on stress-induced pathology. In Ciba Foundation Symposium: Physiology emotion and psychosomatic illness, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1972, pp. 253–265.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • Holger Ursin
    • 1
  • Reidun Ursin
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute of PsychologyUniversity of BergenNorway
  2. 2.Institute of PhysiologyUniversity of BergenNorway

Personalised recommendations