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Can 'Spidey Sense' be taught?

Jun. 1, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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You know that feeling. It’s the tingling sensation you sometimes get that warns you all hell is about to break loose — when the hair on your neck starts standing tall and all your senses practically scream: “Act now!” or you’ll be in some deep kimchi.

The formal word for it is intuition. But the phenomenon has many nicknames: Spidey Sense, ESP, the “sixth sense.” And while this sometimes lifesaving gut feeling seems mystical, scientists think it may have a solid link to reality: it may simply stem from implicit learning, or digesting complex information by continuous exposure or absorption.

With the knowledge that the most experienced troops seem to have the sharpest-honed intuition, Office of Naval Research scientists are aiming to figure out whether it can be taught, or at least fine-tuned faster than it naturally develops.

ONR is embarking on a four-year project, Enhancing Intuitive Decision Making through Implicit Learning, to find out how implicit learning occurs, whether intuition really is tied to it and whether training can bolster it.

Military Times recently spoke with Peter Squire, program officer for human performance, training and education in the ONR Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department to find out more.

Intuition may be real

Troops often return from patrols with stories of how they survived intact through some hairy situation because they had a premonition something was amiss. In one famous case, a sailor on the British destroyer HMS Gloucester made a split decision in 1991 to fire on a radar screen anomaly, which turned out to be an Iranian Silkworm missile aimed at the U.S. battleship Missouri. Some researchers think this gut reaction was actually the subconscious recognition of an irregularity in the sailor’s routine, kind of like Neo noticing a glitch in the Matrix.

“These are quick decisions made unconsciously. Troops can’t tell you what made them stop or act, but we believe something different in what is usually a regular environment triggered a reaction,” Squire said.

Military, academia and business

The new four-year, $3.85 million program to explore the phenomenon is a joint effort among ONR, DSCI Mesh Solutions, Charles River Analytics, Defense Group Inc., Northwestern University, University of California-Los Angeles and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Hope for measuring intuition

The research is two-fold: It will involve experimental studies and brain imaging of college-age students exposed to similar tasks and patterns in an attempt to stoke their intuition, together with data mining of the information generated, with the ultimate goal of developing a model for how intuition occurs.

Research may influence war fighting

The quest to further understand how intuition develops and whether it can be modeled and trained has obvious operational applications. According to Squire, if the researchers understand the process, there may be ways to accelerate it — and possibly spread the powers of intuition throughout military units, so it’s not only the grizzled old noncoms who seem to possess it.

This could be of civilian use

The research could have applicability well beyond the military. Many jobs require making short-fuse decisions — firefighting, law enforcement, piloting aircraft.

“At ONR, we push science to support our war fighters, to make sure they are equipped for a fair fight. But this also has implications for society at large,” Squire said.

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