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Brainpower Next Frontier In Army's Arsenal
by U.S. Army David Vergun - December 4, 2015

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"Human performance will be as important, if not more important, than technology in 2030," predicted a high-level Army intelligence expert.

The reason is that "we've seen an erosion in our technological advantage to overmatch adversaries," a trend that will continue, said Thomas Greco, G-2 for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

Greco and Dr. Kira Hutchinson, director, intelligence/engagement, TRADOC, G-2, spoke during a Nov. 9 media teleconference that summarized findings of the Mad Scientist 2015 conference's "Human Dimension 2025 and Beyond: Building Cohesive Teams to Win in a Complex World," held Oct. 27 - 28 on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Mad Scientist is an annual event that brings together thousands of U.S. and international leading scientists, innovators and thinkers from industry and academia at the conference and through virtual attendance.

Cognitive dominance is critical to winning in a complex world, experts say. (U.S. Army artwork by Peggy Frierson)
Cognitive dominance is critical to winning in a complex world, experts say. (U.S. Army artwork by Peggy Frierson)

"It's about asking disruptive questions," Greco said of the goal of Mad Scientist, and it's about "challenging the Army's traditional-held beliefs and group think."


The key to optimizing human performance, Greco said, is tapping into the energy and power of the human brain.

To reduce the risk of technological overmatch, the Army must create a culture of rapid learning, enhanced empathy and neural plasticity, he said.

Hutchinson said neural plasticity refers to structural and processing changes to the brain due to effective cognitive training. It was once thought that the brain developed to a great extent only in early childhood, but studies have since shown that the brain can continue to develop throughout a person's lifetime.

Army scientists, for example, have effectively used cognitive therapy to mitigate the effects of damage to the brain following wounds and injuries, she said. But in the current context, the idea is to explore how neural plasticity can also work to help healthy Soldiers perform even more optimally.


A low-tech method for optimizing human performance, Greco said, is through physical fitness and psychological fitness. These approaches, which the Army uses in its ready and resilience programs like Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness and Performance Triad, have been shown to foster a healthier brain, with consequent effects in better decision making.

A more sophisticated way of increasing cognitive capability is by placing Soldiers in "the brain gym," he said, comparing it to a physical workout in a gymnasium. The brain gym can be a physical or virtual space where Soldiers go to work on their cognitive fitness.

A lot about this is still in development, he said. The goal would be to measure baseline cognitive performance, then introduce the training and measure the results in a scientific way.

An example of a current effort, he said, involves "red teaming." That effort, being led by personnel at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies, on Fort Leavenworth, involves training Soldiers to be critical thinkers.

Cognitive exercises, administered by red team members, help Soldiers to identify when they have fallacies in their thinking, and provide ways to mitigate it, Greco said. Red teaming also involves training individuals to identify group think so they can mitigate it. Mitigation involves such things as getting reticent and non-leaders of a team to provide valuable input that otherwise might not be heard. "This is cutting edge."

Another example of the "brain gym" involves cognitive training using live and virtual reality gaming, he said. For instance, squad-level training could involve complex, high-stress training in an "immersive environment." Each member of the squad is faced with rigorous exercises and must respond appropriately. In this way, they can identify their strengths and weaknesses.

The game gets increasingly more challenging and intense, taxing the squad's cognitive limits and then extending those limits, he said.

This squad brain gym example cited by Greco not only measures and improves individual performance, it evaluates interactions of the Soldiers in ways that contribute to a more effective squad team, Hutchinson said.

An outcome of that evaluation, she said, might be that the squad as a whole can perform better by collecting critical thinking input from each of the team members and not falling into the trap of group think, whereby effective ideas are discarded to conform to the leader's point of view.

The Army isn't alone in harnessing brain power to improve performance, she noted. For instance, sports teams are using neuroscience to enable players to make better snap decisions while under pressure. The Army is following those developments.


Besides nurturing the brain and brain gym exercises, the Army would like America's youth to get an early start in education relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM, Greco said. These are skills needed to operate in an increasingly high-technology environment, such as cyber.

Public schools and post-secondary education institutions would need to take the lead on this, he said. In turn, the Army would continue to develop their STEM skills once the students become Soldiers.

Unfortunately, the current selection process of assigning a new Soldier a military occupational specialty involves a lot of self-selection, Greco said.

A cognitive assessment approach might be used to identify specific aptitudes and attributes people have that might allow them to excel in particular fields, he said. This could lead individuals to make different, more informed choices. This approach would also factor physical and psychological assessments.

Talent management will be one of the most important aspects of the Army in the next 20 or 30 years because "jobs will change dramatically as technology advances" and more highly-skilled Soldiers will be needed to be placed where they're best suited, Hutchinson predicted.


Another rapidly expanding area in cognitive development involves human-machine interaction, Hutchinson said.

The idea is that neither people nor machines perform as optimally as when both are teamed together, she said. For instance, machines are good at rapid calculations and operating in austere environments without getting hungry, stressed or tired. People, on the other hand, are good at reasoning, synthesizing and pattern recognition.

The challenge is building the interface between the human and machine so they can effectively team up and exploit each of their strengths. An interface includes such things as displays, controls, feedback, communications, and so on, that facilitate human-machine collaboration.

A current example of efforts in human-machine interaction involves Apache helicopter pilots teaming with autonomous vehicles, she said.

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast," Greco said. "Ideas won't survive and flourish unless there's a culture that will embrace the requirement for adaptive and creative thinkers."

By U.S. Army David Vergun
Army News Service
Copyright 2015

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