Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, Vol. 19, Iss. 2, April, 2015, pp. 173-200
@2015 Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology & Life Sciences


Catastrophe Models for Cognitive Workload and Fatigue in N-Back Tasks

Stephen J. Guastello, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI
Katherine Reiter, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI
Matthew Malon, Mt. Mary University, Milwaukee, WI
Paul Timm, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN
Anton Shircel, Kohler Corporation, Sheboygan, WI
James Shaline, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI

Abstract: N-back tasks place a heavy load on working memory, and thus make good candidates for studying cognitive workload and fatigue (CWLF). This study extended previous work on CWLF which separated the two phenomena with two cusp catastrophe models. Participants were 113 undergraduates who completed 2-back and 3-back tasks with both auditory and visual stimuli simultaneously. Task data were complemented by several measures hypothesized to be related to cognitive elasticity and compensatory abilities and the NASA TLX ratings of subjective workload. The adjusted R2 was .980 for the workload model, which indicated a highly accurate prediction with six bifurcation (elasticity versus rigidity) effects: algebra flexibility, TLX performance, effort, and frustration; and psychosocial measures of inflexibility and monitoring. There were also two cognitive load effects (asymmetry): 2 vs. 3-back and TLX temporal demands. The adjusted R2 was .454 for the fatigue model, which contained two bifurcation variables indicating the amount of work done, and algebra flexibility as the compensatory ability variable. Both cusp models were stronger than the next best linear alternative model. The study makes an important step forward by uncovering an apparently complete model for workload, finding the role of subjective workload in the context of performance dynamics, and finding CWLF dynamics in yet another type of memory-intensive task. The results were also consistent with the developing notion that performance deficits induced by workload and deficits induced by fatigue result from the impact of the task on the workspace and executive functions of working memory respectively.

Keywords: working memory, cognitive workload, fatigue, catastrophe