The Army Is Finding It a Key To Survival

Intuitions, hunches, and hints turn out to be critically important, the army is discovering in Iraq, as it struggles with ambiguous and constantly shifting battle lines. Bits of information usually neglected by the mind — often not even noticed — can make the difference between life and death when searching for I.E.D.s, the improvised explosive devices that are the major weapon of Iraqi insurgents.

A major front-page article in the New York Times last week describes how the US Army is drawing on the discoveries of neurobiologists that show how only a fraction of the information the mind takes in reaches consciousness: “As the brain tallies cues, big and small, consciously and not, it may send out an alarm before a person fully understands why.” The trick is to pay attention. (See “In Battle, Hunches Prove to be Valuable.

A couple of points stand out about the process. The major clues are more emotional than cognitive, according to Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.” So the clue is not “out there,” but “inside,” in the body that feels the information it often doesn’t know it knows. As a sergeant quoted by The Times put it: “My body suddenly got cooler; you know, that danger feeling.”

A second point is that to reach the state of attention in which the clues are registered, you have to be in a heightened state of alertness — but you can’t be under too much stress. If soldiers take up the stance of predator, they are more likely to be tuned in to their key internal signals; if they feel like the prey, they can be too tense to notice.

The army is open to such new ideas because so much is at stake. The lives of soldiers can be saved through improved understanding. But the underlying facts are not just relevant to the army. Athletes, businessmen, scientists, traders – anyone who is engaged in high stakes and competitive efforts – can profit from expanding the kinds of information they absorb and paying more attention to how they are absorbing it.

This is something of a switch for all of us. Our culture prefers hard data, and it likes to chunk those “facts” statistically. We tend to rely on computers more than our emotions. But it is becoming more and more clear that in taking that path we are losing out on much that we don’t know we already know.