Effect of task complexity on mental performance during immersion hypothermia

Aviat Space Environ Med. 1993 Mar;64(3 Pt 1):206-11.


The effect of task complexity on the decrement in mental performance during immersion hypothermia was studied. Psychometric tests of varying length and complexity were administered: 1) prior to cold water immersion (baseline); 2) soon after immersion to the neck in cold (8 degrees C) water but prior to any decrease in core temperature; and 3) after 55 to 80 min of immersion when core temperature had decreased 2-4 degrees C. Results indicated that tests placing relatively minimal cognitive demands on individuals, such as auditory attention, the Benton visual recognition test and forward digit span, were unaffected by either initial cold water immersion or central cooling. On the other hand, tests requiring relatively greater mental manipulation and short term memory (i.e., backward digit span) or processing and analysis (i.e., Stroop test) showed a slight improvement upon cold water immersion (perhaps related to increased arousal and/or learning) but a significant decrement following central cooling of 2-4 degrees C. Thus, relatively simple tasks were unaffected by central cooling, whereas more complex tasks were adversely affected. Cold water immersion itself did not interfere with performance of any tasks. Central nervous system cooling probably interferes with mental processing although discomfort and/or the physiological and physical effects of cold on the neuromuscular aspects of speech, required for responses to some of the tasks, may also affect performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention
  • Body Temperature
  • Cold Temperature
  • Humans
  • Hypothermia / psychology*
  • Immersion*
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Mental Processes*
  • Visual Perception