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CHIPS Articles: More than a Feeling: ONR Investigates ‘Spidey Sense’ for Sailors and Marines

More than a Feeling: ONR Investigates ‘Spidey Sense’ for Sailors and Marines
By Eric Beidel, ONR Corporate Strategic Communications - April 1, 2014
ARLINGTON, Va.—Hunches are 50-50 propositions, but Navy researchers want to know if those facing the unexpected in the heat of battle can be trained to guess right more often than not.

In February, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) hosted leading experts in neural, cognitive and behavioral science to synchronize their studies of intuition and translate their findings into applications for military personnel and first responders.

Though the research invites comparisons to a “sixth sense” or Spiderman, what researchers hope to learn has nothing to do with the supernatural or superheroes.

“Ultimately, this is about Sailors and Marines being able to harness their gut instincts in situations where they need to act quickly,” said Dr. Peter Squire, program officer for human performance, training and education in ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combatting Terrorism Department. “But first, we have to understand what gives rise to this so-called ‘sixth sense.’ Can we model it? Is there a way to improve it through training?”

Sailors and Marines don’t always have the luxury to take a lot of time to figure out their next move. They must rely on intuition and a rapid, unconscious interpretation of their surroundings.

In addition to the recent meeting that brought together representatives from other military services, industry and university laboratories, ONR has embarked on a four-year basic research program to enhance intuitive decision making through implicit learning. A team of scientists will study factors such as memory and perception to better understand how decisions are made and whether there are ways to improve premonition through training.

Detecting roadside bombs while in a moving vehicle; sensing impending danger based on something unusual at local café; deciding whether that object just launched off the coast is a missile or airliner — these are just a few of many scenarios where there isn’t a lot of time to make a decision.

“A seasoned Warfighter develops a gut instinct through experience," said Lt. Cmdr. Brent Olde, ONR Warfighter Performance Department's division deputy for human and bio-engineered systems. "If we can characterize this intuitive decision-making process and model it, then the hope is to accelerate the acquisition of these skills through simulation and scenarios; thus, providing our Sailors and Marines with years of experience in a matter of days and greatly improving their ability to make split-second decisions.”

These basic inquiries into intuition align with both Navy and Marine Corps leaders’ plans for the future. The findings eventually could influence operations related to cyberspace, unmanned systems and other areas emphasized by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, whose Sailing Directions call for providing Sailors confidence, not only in their equipment, but in their own skills.

In addition, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos’ Planning Guide stresses small unit leadership, cohesion, innovation and education as forming the foundation of the service.

“Understanding the connection between implicit learning and intuition allows us to open the doors a new set of training practices,” Squire said. “That could provide our warriors a new set of skills to harness when making decisions.”

Office of Naval Research

Brainstem image by R.G. Daniel.
Brainstem image by R.G. Daniel.

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