28 July 2009

In the past two years, an Army researcher, Steven Burnett, has overseen a study into human perception and bomb detection involving about 800 military men and women. Researchers have conducted exhaustive interviews with experienced fighters. They have administered personality tests and measured depth perception, vigilance and related abilities. The troops have competed to find bombs in photographs, videos, virtual reality simulations and on the ground in mock exercises.

The study complements a growing body of work suggesting that the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.

“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has reversed. 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.”

via Brain Power - In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable - Series - NYTimes.com.

As useful as the ability to turn thoughts into language is, there remains in the human mind thoughts or emotions that cannot easily be put into words, but that may nonetheless be valuable assessments of a situation.  The fact that it is difficult to verbalize the source of the feeling does not negate that the feeling may be well-founded.

A related idea in decision making is the “neural network” in which an algorithm weights different criteria to make decisions, but no business logic of how or why those criteria are weighted that way or what they mean is developed.  It just makes accurate predictions.

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