As modern technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to advance in development, the military is utilizing technological advances and new equipment to provide more data and more information to the soldier. These tactics and procedures have been employed to create a strategic advantage; however, they also place complex demands on the information processing capabilities of the soldier. This transition to modern military operations is significant, because these demands render the soldier vulnerable to cognitive overload, and many battlefield errors (friendly fire incidents, collateral damage) have been linked to a decline in cognitive operations.
Here we’ll discuss the role of executive functions and cognitive enhancement training in the Military, as it relates to providing soldiers with the mental skills necessary for managing multiple streams of information and complex decision making.
Current Landscape of Cognitive Enhancement Industry
The role of executive functions for maximizing performance potential has long been understood. The predictive validity of cognitive ability and personality traits was examined in large samples of US Air Force pilot trainees between 1995 and 2008 from four training bases across three training tracks. Results were consistent with previous research indicating that cognitive ability is the best predictor of training performance.
As awareness of human performance programs that meet occupational needs continues to grow, it has been forecasted that the cognitive assessment and training market size will grow from USD 1.98 Billion in 2016 to USD 8.06 Billion by 2021. This growth and rapid expansion of the industry has also been met with skepticism regarding the reliability of evidence for the transfer to real-world performance. This is partly because brain trainer companies have previously received fines for false advertising and claims made regarding benefits. However, the main challenge is that there is a plethora of cognitive enhancement training applications now on the market. While some uphold gold standards of scientific evidence of efficacy, most do not.
Nevertheless, elite military organizations have a direct need for cognitive training practices that use a comprehensive and scientifically valid method of enhancing both executive functions, and perceptual-cognitive systems. Despite the on-going debate surrounding brain-training applications, technological advances and organizations like the Digital Therapeutic Alliance are now making promising strides in identifying cognitive enhancement and performance companies who meet new industry standards for validating cognitive enhancement and assessment solutions.
Transferring Learned Skills to Real World Applications
More military technology and intelligence available to the soldier also means more attention, focus, and awareness required to effectively interpret and make decisions based on the situation and environment. Using cognitive enhancement training has direct implications for equipping soldiers in deployment, active duty, and for those preparing to return following injury or trauma with the skills required to perform under high risk and high-pressure conditions.
For example, the ability to process relevant information, and make decisions about the environment is essential for critical military tasks. In a limited amount of time, military personnel must be able to interpret environmental details into a coherent, mental representation of the area of operations. At the same time, relaying target coordinates and making decisions on the best course of action via radio communications and computer-based technologies can place further demands on mental resources. These tasks not only rely heavily on the function of, but efficiency and stamina of, attention and working memory, inhibition, situational awareness, and cognitive flexibility.
Subcomponents of Cognitive Performance
Working memory is also required to remember incoming commands and coordinates, as well as the ability to relate new information to concurrent information. The feeling of being overwhelmed in the presence of a high stress environment has been linked to deficits in working memory, and working memory capacity has been demonstrated to predict many important phenomena that are important for performance in military occupations. These include multitasking, susceptibility to mind wandering, tactical decision making, abstract reasoning, and errors made while fatigued. It is also highly predictive of the ability to learn and adapt to new situations.
Inhibition is required to sustain attention and process only the most pertinent and relevant information about the environment in the face of many visual and other auditory distractions. Situational awareness is relied on by the soldier for understanding the military technical system and technology, outside environment, the state of other actors (location of other aircraft, actions of enemies and civilians), and the state and status of teammates. As many military operations occur in unknown and stressful environments, situational awareness allows soldiers to make effective use of diverse information, when it is critical to reduce the demands placed on their cognitive load. In situations where new information is presented, cognitive flexibility is required to modify the planned course and “think outside the box” in the face of an unexpected threat or new information.
The ‘Fog of War’
As we have discussed, cognitive abilities are a strong predictor of military performance. However, one factor that is likely under-recognised is how the stress-related effects of warfare degrade a soldier’s cognitive capacities. For example, one study simulated warfare stress with elite US Rangers, and found that cognitive degradation was more severe than alcohol or drug intoxication, or clinical hypoglycemia, seriously compromising operational effectiveness.
This ‘fog of war’ represents a clear and direct need for training methods which increase a war fighter’s mental resilience and robustness, in order to remain functionally effective when mission performance is at it’s most critical.
Practical Training Solutions
As an example of cognitive enhancement practices, the Pilot Training Next Program (PTN) has captured global attention and recognition for its dedication to providing innovative training solutions to the United States Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training program. A core component of the curriculum includes Holistic Human Performance training, led by a team of certified mental performance consultants, who utilize a systematic skills-based training program rooted in performance psychology to optimize student performance.
One piece of technology utilized by the Holistic Human Performance program is a perceptual-cognitive training tool, called NeuroTracker, which uses patented 3-D Multiple Object Tracking technology to elicit and strengthen working memory, attention, visual information processing speed, and executive functions. The pilots train on the system daily to enhance the mental systems and cognitive load capacity needed for live flight training, as well as for helping to manage the demands of a condensed learning curriculum.
The same technology was used in a collaborative research project by the Faubert Applied Research Centre, the University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Lab, the University of Montreal, and Collins Aerospace, which won the IITSEC 2017 Best Paper for Training. This novel study measured the saturation rates on spare cognitive capacity for various jet flight maneuvers, revealing the most efficient training loads for individual pilots.
Evolution and Adoption
Outside of these examples, the depth of scientific research of cognitive training and assessment solutions is spurring their adoption by elite military organizations such as USSOCOM and CANSOFCOM. Not only are such tools and methods being utilized for performance enhancement, but also to profile talent, and to determine performance or return-to-action readiness.
Though the cognitive dimension of military performance is still a relatively new domain, it is evolving quickly, and this evolution is being accelerated by growing adoption for real-world military needs, along with new Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies. In the next few years we can expect to see a wide range of new solutions driven by this synergy of research, technology and applied use by military experts.