How fatigue affects our dexterity
Ellie Hassan is a PhD student in Sport and Health Sciences, based on St Luke’s Campus in Exeter. She is part of the SWBio Programme, and is funded by the BBSRC and ESRC . She is investigating the effects of fatigue on sensorimotor control. Her supervisors are Professor Andrew Jones (Exeter), Dr Gavin Buckingham (Exeter), Professor Tim Carroll (Queensland), and Professor Patric Bach (Aberdeen).
How does fatigue affect dexterity?
Think about everything you’ve had to use your hands for in the past five minutes. Now think about everything you’ve had to use them for in the past hour, day, and week. What would have happened if you were clumsy or slow during all of those times? Our ability to coordinate the movement of our hands and fingers and use them to interact with objects in our surrounding environment is called dexterity. All of us rely on dexterity for basic everyday tasks such as buttoning a shirt or drinking from a cup of tea. Being able to do these tasks in an accurate and efficient way is crucial for our safety, as well as for ensuring that we are able to do basic things without depending on others.
My research focuses on how fatigue affects our dexterity. We all experience fatigue, whether it is due to strenuous exercise, a long day at work, or a period of illness. If our dexterity changes when we are fatigued, this may put as at risk of harm, or make simple tasks more challenging. Does being fatigued make us clumsy? Does it make basic daily tasks more difficult? These are examples of the kinds of questions that my research hopes to begin to answer.
My journey to my PhD
During my undergraduate degree in Psychology I became very interested in perception (not in the least because we got to look at visual illusions in lectures). Our brain is constantly putting together a lot of information from a lot of different senses, and interpreting all of that information so that we can understand our environment. The main thing our brain uses this information for is for controlling movement. For example we see something we want to pick up, figure out what we need to do to pick it up, and move accordingly.
My interest in perception led me to a masters degree in Neuropsychology, where I again learned something very interesting. Many psychologists will ask people to do a task and will examine how and why they succeed at the task. In contrast, neuropsychologists study how and why people with brain damage fail to perform a task. In this way, neuropsychologists use cases of failure to learn about the processes behind success.
Fatigue is another case where we can use failure to understand success. Fatigue affects our brain and body in a way that could cause us to fail to do certain dexterity tasks accurately and efficiently. When I saw a PhD studentship with a topic that focused on perception, action, and potential disruption to these two, I knew it was for me.
The most surprising thing to me about my research is how little this topic has been considered by other researchers! This is made all the more surprising by peoples’ usual reaction when I explain my research topic. Everyone knows what it is like to feel fatigued, and many people report feeling clumsy or slow when they are fatigued. So why has no one taken a look at this yet?
The other surprise I had was the change in research culture from Psychology to Sport and Health Sciences. Psychology experiments tend to be quiet affairs, whereas during a visit to the Sport and Health Sciences buildings, you can often hear the “strong verbal encouragement” being given to participants. I also had to get used to working in a much smaller department, in a much smaller campus, and a much smaller city.
I am still at the beginning of my PhD journey, with 2.5 of my 3 PhD years still to go. I have not yet had the chance to be surprised by my participants or my data, but I am sure there are plenty of surprises still in store. If you’re interested in hearing about these as they happen, or want to find out what I learn about fatigue and dexterity, please follow me on twitter @EleanorHassan.