Initial research has been completed in a major new study that may eventually help improve police performance during high-intensity events, like shootings or life-threatening pursuits, and define what an officer can reasonably be expected to remember about such incidents afterward.
A staggering amount of fresh data regarding brain activity is currently being analyzed. But already preliminary evidence strongly suggests that the ability to sort out important information from multiple sources in a complex scene and to recall details later is linked decisively to the amount of relevant skill training an officer has received.
Laboratory and field testing of volunteers in the study was conducted last spring [’06] in England under the auspices of the Force Science Research Center, with the collaboration of the London Metropolitan Police. Heading the project is Dr. Jonathan Page, assistant professor of psychology at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where the FSRC is headquartered.
“We were floored by the ability of highly trained officers to process visual and auditory information simultaneously and remember it accurately later, compared to those who had received less training or were untrained,” FSRC’s executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski told Force Science News. “The ability of the best trained to control their emotional response and to gather and preserve a dramatically wider range of information while achieving a higher level of performance was truly amazing.”
The research is part of a broad interest by the FSRC in tunnel vision and tunnel hearing and the brain processes related to these phenomena.
“Until we understand what goes on in the brain and scientifically address how to help officers cope with human limitations like tunneling, they will continue to pay the price at two ends of the survival continuum,” Lewinski explains. “At the front end, if they can’t identify threats early and accurately, they risk being killed or taking someone else’s life inappropriately. Afterward, because tunnel vision and tunnel hearing impact memory, they often can’t report on some details they’re expected to report on. Then criminal and IA investigators or juries may suspect they’re lying when, in fact, their memory gaps are wholly legitimate.”
In an effort to understand more about how the brain processes and stores sensory input and the effect training may have on this process, Page, an FSRC Technical Advisory Board member, launched a series of tests in London related to perception and particularly to high-speed driving. Eventually FSRC hopes to expand the study to encompass firearms training as well.
For London Metro, in contrast to the US, patrol officers (constables) are rated for different levels of driving.
- ”Response” drivers receive 2 weeks of special driving training beyond the minimal vehicular familiarization received in the police academy. This training must be successfully completed before an officer is permitted to exceed the speed limit and drive Code 3 in response to a call.
- Motorcycle officers have to first be qualified as response drivers and then receive another 2 weeks of specialized bike training.
- Pursuit drivers–the highest trained and the only London officers permitted to engage in high-speed chases–need 4 additional weeks of training beyond the response level. Much of this instruction and practice is conducted in variable weather and lighting conditions on real roads and highways among real traffic at speeds up to 150 mph. These officers become extremely sophisticated drivers, able to read subtleties like the impact of tree shade on road-surface moisture, to predict traffic patterns far ahead, and to safely control the interplay between their squad car and other vehicles along a pursuit route. Pursuit drivers, like most SWAT team members in the US, perform regular patrol functions until they are needed for a chase.
For his laboratory tests, conducted at the Centrex Leadership Academy for Policing at Bramshill, Page chose 6 volunteers from each of these 3 categories, plus 6 civilians and police personnel with no specialized driver training. All 24 were subjected to 4 tests involving simultaneous auditory and visual components.
LAB TEST #1:
Seated one at a time in front of a computer screen, the volunteers watched the same series of 100 different line drawings (an eagle, a car, a balloon, a clown, a harp, etc.). The pictures appeared at 3-sec. intervals and the volunteers were told to look at each and store it in their memory. After every 20 pictures, consuming a minute of the test, the subjects were told to write down what images they could remember.
While they were watching the drawings, audible tones were being sounded at low, medium and high pitches. While looking at and remembering the pictures, the volunteers were instructed to mentally keep track of the number of high tones they heard and to ignore the others. They had to keep their hands on the table so monitors could confirm that they were not covertly counting on their fingers.
The volunteers all wore a stretchable nylon skull cap with electrodes sewn into it. These electroencephalographic (EEG) devices were able to measure electrical brain activity at 40 different locations on each subject’s head. “Recognition responses” could then be documented each time the volunteers noticed one of the high tones, “so we could get an electro-physiological measurement of their attention processes,” Page says.
LAB TEST #2:
Here the volunteers listened to 100 nouns being spoken (bear, spider, umbrella and so on) and after every 20 they were told to write down what they had heard. While this was going on, black, green and blue circles appeared in random order on the computer screen. The subjects were to mentally count only the blue ones.
LAB TEST #3:
The subjects watched a series of 5 dash-cam videos of actual pursuits conducted by London Metro. Each tape lasted about a minute. At the end of each, the volunteers were asked to give a verbal report on everything they could remember seeing, in the sequence it had occurred. Again, while each visual scenario played out, they were tasked with counting the number of high-pitched beeps that were sounded while disregarding beeps of lower tones.
Before this test began, Page had weighted various elements of the videos, as to importance and detail. If a subject remembered seeing a bike weaving in and out of traffic, for example, that might be worth 1 point; if he remembered also that the driver was wearing a black helmet, that was worth more, something general always getting a lesser score than something specific. The volunteers spoke their recap of the action into a desk mic that was connected to a laptop computer so that their responses could be captured and scored.
LAB TEST #4:
Finally, the volunteers listened to actual Metro radio calls and chatter, 5 chunks of broadcast material of about a minute each. Simultaneously, colored circles appeared on the computer screen and blue ones had to be counted, as in Test #2. After each minute of recording, the subjects reported via the desk mic everything they could remember about what they’d heard, and the order in which they’d heard it.
“We wanted to see if the trained drivers showed any superior multi-tasking abilities or memory recall,” Page told Force Science News. “The results were really exciting.
“When we looked at memory for the non-police-related material-words, pictures, tones-there was essentially no difference in performance among any of the driving levels. The untrained and the well-trained scored about the same.
“But when it came to police-related information, there was a huge difference, of a very large magnitude. As a group, volunteers with the most extensive driving training accurately reported a lot more information from memory, and managed to better accommodate the audio or visual distractions in their processing of the experience.”
Relatively speaking, an untrained driver might recall 15 seconds worth of sketchy, disjointed information when trying to report what he had seen on one of the pursuit videos; a “response” driver might be able to offer a minute’s worth of recollections. But a “pursuit” driver could go on for 3 minutes or more because he could remember so many more details of what he’d witnessed. Plus the recaps of pursuit drivers tended to be far more accurate and better sequenced and the tonal beeps more accurately counted. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Page stresses that these are NOT precise figures from the study but are used here merely to reflect the thrust of the findings.)
“The differences are not due to some natural superior ability of the pursuit drivers,” Page says. “As a group, they scored the same as the others on the non-police tests. The difference has to do with training. The more highly trained the volunteers were in the skill of driving, the higher they scored in the driving-related challenges.”
The EEG readings from these tests are in the process of being collated and analyzed. No preliminary findings have yet been identified, but when the assessment is complete Page and Lewinski expect them to reveal additional–and perhaps startling–new findings.
Likewise, EEG readings collected from 2 field tests Page conducted for the study are yet to be fully evaluated. These tests involved 2 separate sets of volunteers.
FIELD TEST #1:
Three officers in their first week as students in the pursuit driving program and 3 experienced, highly skilled instructors were rigged up one at a time with the electrode-studded skull cap. With Page and his laptop in the back seat of an unmarked BMW training vehicle, they drove a set route that took them along urban streets, 2-lane country roads and a high-speed, heavy-traffic, 6-lane highway for 30 to 40 minutes.
The volunteers were told to drive “as fast as was comfortable to them at about 90 per cent of their capability,” while they maneuvered through traffic, made turns, circled roundabouts, and watched for potential hazards along the way.
Page believes this is the first study to measure differences and changes in brain waves during actual high-speed driving. The students reached speeds up to 130 mph, the instructors up to 150 mph. No audio distractions were imposed during these runs, Page explains, “especially with me in the car!”
As the volunteers drove, the computer was storing “more than 1,000,000 pieces of data on brain wave activity every 25 seconds. That gives us a tremendous amount of data to wade through, but the possibility of discovering some fascinating and important correlates.”
FIELD TEST #2:
Audio distractions were imposed in this test sequence, conducted at the Metropolitan Police Driver Training Center at Hendon. Here 6 students, 3 instructors and 3 school personnel who had no driver training were hooked up to the EEG apparatus and told to make figure 8s on a skid pan while driving a Vauxhall Omega at 8-10 mph.
The pan’s surface was dotted with traffic cones and covered with oil and water. As the volunteers coped with these hazards, low and high audio tones sounded, and they were to count the number of high tones.
When analysis is completed, perhaps as soon as next month [8/06], Page expects to be able to identify measurable differences in brain activity that correspond with the different levels of training experienced by the volunteers.
He stresses: “We are not assessing training technique in this study. We are just looking at the effects of training per se on performance, comparing the trained to untrained.”
In the future, Lewinski says, an effort will be made to precisely identify what level of training is necessary to produce positive changes in the brain and also to test training and brain activity in the context of simulated gunfights. “We want to learn more about the brain’s ability to perceive and remember information in threat situations,” he says.
Experiments in that area will be conducted in London also, and may start as early as October.
Page explains that each of the subjects in the recent research were given exit interviews after their tests. These conversations frequently drifted to the many frustrations of police work.
“One of the biggest frustrations they expressed,” Page recalls, “was that after being involved in a critical incident they were expected during questioning to remember every single thing that occurred, even years later. If they didn’t remember details exactly or didn’t remember some things at all, people thought they were lying or at least trying to shade the truth.
“If we can understand more about how cognitive processes change under threat in trained and untrained individuals, we’ll be in a much better position to tell what exactly what influence training should be expected to have, what performance standards should be expected of an officer in high-stress situations and what he or she should realistically be expected to remember afterwards.”
[For their invaluable help in coordinating the London testing, FSRC would like to thank Cst. Dave Blocksidge, Sgt.Mark Stacey, Cst. Paul Monk, and Insp. Jeff Plumer. The study is being funded by the Constables’ Branch Board of the London Metropolitan Police.
For more information on police driving training in England, see the 2-part series posted recently by Capt. Travis Yates on the website of our strategic partner, PoliceOne.com.
You will find the series here: