Thursday, December 11, 2014

Navy research project on intuition aims to optimize discoveries

By Steve Hammons

(A version of this article was posted 4/6/15 on the CultureReady blog of the U.S. Defense Language and National Security Education Office and on LinkedIn 2/5/15.)

The U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) has begun a four-year project to identify, understand and use “intuitive decision-making” and what is being termed “implicit learning.”

Based on other formal research and anecdotal reports over the years, the ONR study, called “Enhancing Intuitive Decision Making Through Implicit Learning,” will attempt to determine how rapid or apparently spontaneous intuitive impressions can be used by military personnel and others.

Often referred to as “gut instincts,” “hunches” and the “sixth sense,” scientific research indicates that these can be legitimate sources of accurate information and understanding. Intuition may be simply acquiring and processing information in different ways, researchers indicate.

Valid impressions can be arrived at via various kinds of information coming to us through normal sensory perception, absorption of past training and experience, our unconscious minds, our bodies and even somewhat mysterious areas of quantum physics, according to some research.

When these potential sources of information and understanding are used (often in combination) military personnel may be better-prepared to quickly integrate and process information, gain improved “situation awareness” and make rapid, effective decisions, ONR and other researchers point out.


According to a June 2014 article in the Navy Times, Marine Corps Times, Army Times and Air Force Times, “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.”

In a March 2014 media release from the ONR, more details about the new project were explained. “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,” according to the press release which was also posted on the Navy News Service website.

The media release quoted Lt. Cmdr. Brent Olde, ONR Warfighter Performance Department's division deputy for human and bio-engineered systems: “A seasoned warfighter develops a gut instinct through experience.”

Olde was also quoted as explaining, “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.”

Also included in the ONR press release were statements from Dr. Peter Squire, program officer for human performance, training and education in ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department. 

Squire said, “Ultimately, this is about sailors and Marines being able to harness their gut instincts in situations where they need to act quickly. 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?”

The article published in the Military Times also reported additional comments by Squire about stories of troops in combat who took actions based on intuitive-type perceptions: “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.”

“At ONR, we push science to support our warfighters, to make sure they are equipped for a fair fight. But this also has implications for society at large,” Squire was quoted as saying.

The Military Times article included the following: “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. The research could have applicability well beyond the military.”

The same article summarized the critical importance of these kinds of perceptions. “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 recent years the U.S. Army has also initiated research into hunches and intuition. Those studies found that two kinds of American troops in combat areas seemed to be better able to detect hidden improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

One type included those troops raised in rural areas in a natural environment and who were involved in hunting and similar activities. They seemed to have better instincts and were possibly more alert about dangers around them. The other category was the Army soldier or Marine who grew up in tough urban settings where they had to be aware of danger from crime and assault.

This type of research is not new. Universities and previous defense-related research going back to the 1970s explored and utilized unconventional, alternative and complementary kinds of perception that humans are believed to possess naturally, and can be enhanced through training.

Probably the most well-known of these efforts is now referred to as Project STAR GATE. That program developed methods to attempt to acquire accurate and reliable information using human consciousness. 

Though this research-and-operational program appears to be more forward-leaning in its goals and methods than the new ONR implicit learning project, there seem to be several areas of significant overlap.

Based on the successes of Project STAR GATE, a former Navy SEAL officer developed the concept of “transcendent warfare” that he explored in a graduate-level research paper. The transcendent warfare model involves learning more about new discoveries related to human perception and using that knowledge in appropriately robust ways. The ONR research project also appears to dovetail with transcendent warfare ideas.

The validity of different (though complementary) modes of human perception, and processing those perceptions, appear to be well-established by much previous research. 

The new ONR project reportedly attempts to further explore these abilities and add to existing training and education efforts about them.

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