Can We Turn Our Intuition Into a Real-Life Superpower?

US military scientists are trying to identify where "gut feelings" come from in an effort to create the perfect soldiers.

This is an excerpt from the new non-fiction book Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human by Adam Piore, available now in hardcover and e-book formats. 

In 1911, the Swiss psychologist Édouard Claparède put a pin between his fingers and shook the hand of an amnesiac patient, pricking her. The next day she didn't remember meeting him, but she wouldn't shake his hand.

Scientists have long suspected the mind knows more than it knows it knows. Even if we forget we have been hurt, the body remembers. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we still carry that implicit knowledge.

Imagine if we could measure this kind of knowledge. Imagine if we could track it and somehow train it. Such advances would have relevance to a wide-array of disciplines. But some of the most fascinating research on how to subtly inculcate individuals with the kind of unconscious memories that normally only come with experience is being funded by the US military. If they succeed, they could teach green recruits not just to intuit the presence of a pin, but to sense, say, the presence of a hidden IED, or concealed Taliban soldiers waiting to spring an ambush. Radar saved countless lives in Second World War. Human intuition could be the untapped radar system of modern counter-insurgencies.

In 2009, Joseph Cohn, a program officer for the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA), won funding to pursue the first step: A hunt for a new neural signature of gut feelings. Cohn, a Navy captain with a neuroscience PhD, was inspired by a Marine colonel's recollection of a sergeant with a "sixth sense" so highly tuned that everyone wanted him on their patrol.
"He always seemed to know when to start ducking, when to start shooting, even before things would start," the Colonel said, then asked: "Can you do something like that, Doc-make people be able to do that?"

"He always seemed to know when to start ducking, when to start shooting, even before things would start."

Cohn had heard similar stories—a steady stream of anecdotes had been floating back from Iraq and Afghanistan about individuals who halted convoys ahead of IEDs—even though they often couldn't say exactly what was wrong. Or of individuals got one of those feelings just before an ambush. Cohn had also read the academic literature on intuition. Psychologists, behavioral economists and philosophers have all examined the role "gut" judgements play in decisions. Cohn was fascinated by the work of Gary Klein, a psychologist who was funded by the Army to study how experienced firefighters made snap judgements amidst infernos that normally induce paralyzing fear. 

Conventional wisdom suggested they would weigh multiple options, then choose one, using logic. But Klein found experienced commanders almost always considered only a single option. By the time they became aware of the approach, they'd already decided. They simply said, "I know what's going on here, and because of that, I know what I should do," Klein says. He called it "pattern matching."

Just as the brain's pattern-matching machinery can connect a solution to a problem, Klein argued it can also detect anomalous sensory mismatches and give us an intuition that something is wrong. 

After his discussion with the Colonel, Cohn recalls, he had an epiphany: If intuition really existed, there must be a way to locate it– to watch it in real time. "If you could do that," Cohn realized, then you really "could figure out ways to train it."

Intuitive judgements, researchers of all disciplines agree, are based on unconscious impressions, and are usually emotionally charged. Cohn funded a team to look for signals in the brain that started in the visual cortex, bypassed areas of the brain crucial for rational, conscious thought, and ran directly to the limbic system, the seat of emotion. 

To elicit such signals, University of Oregon neuroscientists showed volunteers 150 incomplete pictures of objects like chairs and cups with so many pieces missing, conscious recognition was impossible. They also threw in 50 decoy pictures—randomly generated pixels that had been scrambled. Then they instructed volunteers to guess which of the partial pictures, scrolling by, two per second, contained an object.

The team hypothesized that when faced with limited sensory information, the brain's unconscious pattern-matching machinery might still discern the presence of something concrete. In fact, participants correctly guessed there was an object in the fragments 65 percent of the time. They incorrectly guessed there was an object in decoys 14 percent of the time. Sure enough the researchers detected neural signatures that predicted a correct guess.

In an experimentally significant number of cases where the subjects correctly intuited an object, brain activity began diverging from that recorded in incorrect guesses 100 milliseconds before the volunteers consciously registered a new picture had been presented. This flash of rhythmic oscillations originated in the visual cortex and led to the limbic system. The brain also generated a second, more global pattern of oscillations, at a frequency often seen when the brain forms disparate areas into an ad hoc network.

"What that told us was that if you were having an intuition, A: your limbic system was activated, which is why you have that gut feeling, 'Wow, something's going on!'" Cohn says. "But B: other parts of the brain start to get pulled in, to help you make sense of that information."

In 2011, Cohn, by then at the Office of Naval Research, won $3.85 million for a project to train intuition. To lead the project, Cohn tapped Paul Reber, a Northwestern neuroscientist who has spent his career elucidating how unconscious learning works. He has studied what happens in the brain as we build unconscious visual expertise, in cases, for instance, where our reaction times speed up in response to a visual cue because we have unconsciously learned a pattern, and are implicitly anticipating it. When this happens, Reber has demonstrated that neuronal firing becomes more refined in the visual cortex, and more intense in an area of the brain called the basil ganglia, also known to house the kind of motor memory that allows us to ride a bicycle, or play guitar.

Your intuition will only be accurate if your cumulative experience is a representative sample of reality.

But intuition—a feeling, for instance, that your team is about to score, or that something bad is about to happen—is not always correct. Connections between groups of neurons in the brain are shaped by the sum of cumulative experience, Reber explains. The more you're exposed to a group of cues together, the more likely the unconscious areas of the brain are to recognize and respond to those cues with an intuition in the future. Your intuition will only be accurate if your cumulative experience is a representative sample of reality.

"If you want to build up this implicit learning layer you probably have to do something like drill training," Reber says. "Run somebody through a few hundred scenarios."

To help design these drills, Reber is collaborating with Charles River Associates, a firm the designs realistic, "virtual" spaces used to train marines. They have already demonstrated they can generate flashes of intuition by showing subjects different pieces of terrain, and asking them to guess which ones share constellations of features too subtle to detect with the conscious mind. The next step is to layer on more complex and realistic scenarios.

"We want to see if we can elicit the same intuition effects—and what kinds of modifications and trainings we might design to accelerate it," says Peter Squire, the ONR project manager who succeeded Cohn. "It could be IEDs, or the presence of hidden snipers or terrorists. There are certain regular patterns that might be disrupted."

Those patterns might be something as subtle as discoloration in the dirt, or a lack of normal street activity.

If they are successful, the findings won't just be relevant to soldiers. These kinds of methods could also be used to train stock brokers, athletes, and any number of other individuals who work in fast-paced, high-stakes environments. It also might help all of us to better understand when we can ignore those mysterious gut "feelings" that subtly push us towards a given course of action—and when its best to pay attention.

Read more in Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human by Adam Piore.

Body Builders

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