Faculty of Science - Leading creativity and innovation in the sciences

Take 10 with... Dr Arne Nieuwenhuys

Dr Arne Nieuwenhuys, Department of Exercise Sciences
Dr Arne Nieuwenhuys

Dr Arne Nieuwenhuys, from the Department of Exercise Sciences, gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss how anxiety and fatigue affect human movement and performance.

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

My research is about the psychophysiology of human performance.

2. Now explain it in ‘layman’s’ terms!

I am interested in how psychophysiological states such as anxiety and fatigue affect human movement and performance.

Think about a soccer player who – after 120 minutes of intense match-play – needs to take a decisive penalty during the World Championship final, a police officer who needs to gain control over an armed assailant after a strenuous chase, or a surgeon who needs to perform a live-saving operation at the end of a night shift.

By understanding how critical cognitive and motor functions are affected by (changes in) individuals’ psychophysiological state, I aim to develop evidence-based interventions that help people improve their performance in those situations where it counts the most.

3. Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

My day-to-day research activities are pretty diverse. At times I am in the lab, where we perform careful manipulations of fatigue or threat and look at how this affects distinct motor control processes (e.g., response inhibition, visual attention). At other times I may be out in the field and conduct (more applied) research with athletes or police officers as they perform experimental tasks in their own habitual environment.

At the moment however, I am in a transition period, as I moved to New Zealand only six months ago. I am working on some projects that I still have running with the Olympic Committee in The Netherlands (about sleep and sports performance) and have been busy writing grant applications to start-up new research here in Auckland.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy moving back and forth between the lab and the field. I like solving puzzles and sinking my teeth in fundamental research questions, but I also like to see whether things actually matter in the real world. Working with professionals (e.g., athletes, police officers) and experiencing your research to have actual impact is a great source of motivation.

5. Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

Regardless of practice or experience, some situations will always remain highly stressful. For example, even experienced police officers experience high levels of stress in confrontation with an armed and dangerous assailant.

While basic psychophysiological responses to threat may be hard to prevent, our research has shown that – through practice – existing motor skills may be preserved and individuals can learn to maintain performance under high stress.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Depending on task complexity and the level of cognitive involvement that is required, acclimatising performance to high stress can be difficult to achieve and – at the very least – take more time. In professional contexts, such as police work, such time is not always available. In response, we took the research back to the lab to learn more about underlying mechanisms and develop more refined and powerful interventions.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

A very interesting finding that my colleagues and I recently obtained, is that basic effects of threat on response inhibition explain a significant part of the increase in (false-positive) response errors that we see when individuals perform under high stress.

In future studies I hope to gain deeper understanding of this phenomenon and to find effective ways of preserving this critical function.   

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

Scientifically, I hope that my research is of inspiration to others. On an applied level, I hope to continue developing evidence-based interventions that help people to maintain their level of performance under challenging circumstances.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Being new to the University of Auckland, this is still work in progress for me. Within the Department of Exercise Sciences, I have been setting up collaboration with Professor Winston Byblow, as we aim to investigate the neurophysiological underpinnings of response inhibition under high threat. However, given that my research really cross-bridges human movement sciences and cognitive psychology, I would also be keen to connect with colleagues from the Department of Psychology.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

It is good to be curious, but it is also important to focus. If you want to make progress, you really have to dedicate your research efforts in a specific direction. Despite being enjoyable, my curiosity and broad interest have sometimes caused me to pursue too many and too different research questions at the same time.