SPRINGFIELD, Va. (Army News Service, Feb. 9, 2016) -- "Training the brain is really the gateway to improved readiness and performance," Col. Benjamin Solomon said.

Solomon, a neurologist and the brain health program manager for the Army Office of the Surgeon General, spoke at a National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored Human Systems Conference here, Feb. 9.

As tactics evolve that hand more responsibility and decision-making to small units acting independently on the battlefield, cognitive performance will become at least as important as new technology, he said.

BRAIN TRAINING

Cognitive performance means much more than memory processing, he said. Cognitive performance encompasses such things as creative thinking, critical reasoning and even social interaction skills, he said.

To date, not a lot has been done in the area of "brain training" for those skills he said. A lot of research has been conducted in training the brain, but real-world implementation of that training hasn't followed.

For example, he said, "We're demanding creative thinking in the Army Operating Concept but we're not actually teaching it," he said. "It actually can be taught."

Another example, he said, is pairing cognitive training with sensory inputs. Research has shown, for instance, that pairing odors or scents with training can improve performance. One study paired the scent of lavender with cognitive tasks and the group given the scent during training performed better when the scent was introduced during a cognitive task. The other group did not get scent pairing and performed considerably lower.

So for marksmanship training, Soldiers subconsciously pair the smell of gunpowder with target acquisition. Take away that smell, as in a virtual shooting range, and scores might decline. So if a study is done and an effect is shown to give better scores, why not add the odor in the virtual reality environment to make the training more realistic and effective?

COGNITIVE TESTING

Another area ripe for exploiting is cognitive testing, he said. The means to do so already exist.

For instance, recruits at a Military Entrance Processing Station could be given a battery of cognitive tests that would inform the Army whether or not a hidden personality disorder exists that would make that person unsuitable for soldiering. Another test could determine who is the best fit for infantry or some other specialty. Another test could measure grit and determination, he pointed out.

U.S. Special Operations Command is already exploiting these types of tests, he said.

COGNITIVE TRAINING SUCCESSES

All of this doesn't mean that the Army is not focused on improving brain health, he added. Some very effective efforts are being made to do that.

For example, Performance Triad, which places an emphasis on quality sleep, activity and nutrition, has been amply demonstrated to enhance cognitive functioning and improve performance, he said. The Army has even issued monitoring devices to certain groups of Soldiers and has used Army-wide awareness campaigns for all three of those areas for Soldiers' health and resilience, but there is still a ways to go.

For instance, in the area of sleep, the average Soldier still gets less than six hours a night, he said. "Sleep deprivation is still a badge of honor." So the culture needs to change as well, he said.

Another area Soldiers are getting cognitive training is in goal setting and changing bad habits, he said. That is being done by Ready and Resilience programs.

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