• Lisa Barday

Cognitive Ergonomics and Live Wiring - Optimizing Work in an Ever-Changing World

We are delighted to have a guest contributor, Matt Jeffs, for this timely and interesting topic of Cognitive Ergonomics. This wraps up our series of writings on the different elements of Ergonomics: Physical - Social - Cognitive.

Cognitive Ergonomics – as defined by the International Ergonomics Association (https://iea.c) – is concerned with mental processes. Understanding what occurs ‘under-the-hood’, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, gives the state-of-the-art Ergonomist functional knowledge. This operational understanding helps us in our own work. It also girds us for more effective interactions with one another, and with the elements of the systems in which we work.

For many reasons, we live at a time when neuroscience research is heavily funded. The resulting studies – and their outcomes – are generating new capabilities daily. Discerning what is most occupationally useful from that understanding falls on today’s multidimensional Ergonomist. We aren’t living up to our job demands if we ignore optimal cognition.

A recent book that can aid in this understanding is Stanford Neuroscientist David Eagleman PhD’s NYT Bestseller ‘LIVEWIRED:’ The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain.* This accessible book is meant for the average reader. It also provides for the deft Ergonomist some key principles in helping their clients 1) Work Better Onsite (WBO), 2) Work From Home (WFH), and 3) Work From Anywhere (WFA).

In Eagleman’s book, we learn the Seven Principles of ‘Live-Wiring’. How we direct the brain to work optimally from any of the three environmental circumstances (WBO / WFH / WFA) listed above. This informs our own efforts – as it enlightens the work of those with whom we contract our services. Below is a list of those Seven Principles, with suggestions on how best the modern Ergonomist can direct clients to apply them for optimal results. We call these our Seven Cognitive Ergonomic Practices, and they’re listed here:

Seven Live Wiring Principles: Seven Cognitive Ergonomic Practices:

1: Reflect the World: Adaptive brains match 1. We now work on multiple devices, at

themselves to their input. differing times, in changing spaces

using shifting levels of focus. This is

our up-to-the-minute reality, and we

must adapt appropriately for optimal


2. Wrap Around the Inputs: Brains leverage 2. To train our brains optimally, we must

whatever information streams in. understand how these inputs are best

harnessed and apply them adroitly.

This is the very essence of Cognitive

Ergonomics in our modern world.

3. Drive Any Machinery: Brains learn to control 3. Cognitive Ergonomics draws from

whatever body plan they discover position sense (proprioception) and

themselves working inside. movement sense (kinesthesia).

Keeping connected to our physical

surroundings boosts optimal


4. Retain What Matters: Brains distribute their 4. Like water, cognitive load finds its own

resources based on relevance. level. Deep Work principles applied

to spatial, temporal, digital and focal

settings yield optimum performance.

Our goal is to combine these variables


5. Lockdown Stable Information: Some parts 5. When Cognitive Ergonomics is

of the brain are more flexible than others - applied spatially, temporally, focally,

depending on their input. and digitally - "Live-Wiring" applies

the requisite malleability when / where

it's most needed. Heightened

performance results.

6. Compete or Die: Plasticity emerges from a 6. Neuroscientific "use-it-or-lost-it"

struggle for survival between parts of the applies here. The brain is a

system. competitive landscape. Adept

application of spatial, temporal, focal

and digital input ensures cognitive

flexibility rewards our greatest


7. Move Toward the Data: The brain builds an 7. Applying Cognitive Ergonomics and

internal model of the world and adjusts "Live-Wiring" principles ensures

whenever predictions are incorrect. accurate predictions of what's to come

-and adjustability - when its necessary.

We build "on-the-fly" - always honing

our sharpest edge.

Armed with this knowledge – and wielding the skills to apply them – separates the advanced Ergonomist from the merely passable one. Consuming literature on neuroscience only deepens our appreciation of this new and evolving terrain. To illustrate this point best, we’ll close with quotes from Dr. Eagleman’s book. He captures the essence of our moment – and the opportunities of our emergent understanding:

“Live-Wiring is more than a jaw dropping curiosity of nature. It is the fundamental trick that allows for more flexible intelligence and civilizations. It is about finding oneself without the tools for a job, and fine tuning the brain to create those tools. Live-Wiring is the mechanism through which evolution by natural selection is relieved of some impossible pressures. Instead of presaging every eventuality, brains can adjust billions of parameters – on the fly – to meet the unforeseen.” *


International Faculty – The European Union

Principle Faculty – The Back School

Adjunct Faculty – Doctoral University Programs

*Eagleman, David. LIVEWIRED: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain. 2020. Pantheon Books. New York, NY

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