Natick’s Cognitive Science Research Helps Steer Soldiers in the Right Direction


NATICK, Mass. (Oct. 3, 2014) – When the going gets tough, Dr. Tad Brunyé wants to help. A member of the Cognitive Science Team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Brunyé is investigating spatial and non-spatial influences on Soldier navigation choices.

Spatial influences pertain to things in an actual space, such as topography, local and distant landmarks, or the position of the sun. Non-spatial influences are a little harder to define and can include a Soldier’s emotional state, level of stress, mission and task demands, skills, abilities, traits, and his or her past experience in a geographical area, all of which can affect navigational choices.

“We are still trying to identify and characterize the full range of spatial and non-spatial influences and how they interact with emerging representations of experienced environments,” Brunyé said. “We all have our current mental states. So, you may see the same landmarks as I do, you may see the same topography that I do, but I might be in a very different state that leads me to interpret and use that same information in very different ways.

“How confident do I feel in my environment? Is there a history of enemy activity? Are there certain areas I want to avoid? Are there certain safe spots that I want to keep in mind? There is always interplay between what you sense in the environment, what you perceive, what you know, what you predict will occur, and ultimately how you act.”

Soldiers face special challenges during navigation. Their jobs are physically demanding. They are often under extreme stress, and they often need to make quick decisions in an ever-changing and sometimes dangerous environment. They may be cold, hot, hungry or tired. All of these factors can affect the ability to make wise navigation decisions.

Individual cognitive abilities and individual personalities can also affect navigation choices. Brunyé has found that good navigators tend to be more open to new experiences and are less anxious than poor navigators.

There are also misperceptions that influence navigation choices. One of the key discoveries made by Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center researchers is that many people will choose a route that goes south because they equate going south with going downhill. They perceive a southern route as easier than a northern route, which they equate with going uphill. This incorrect assumption can lead to less than optimal navigation choices.


“This finding has been coined the ‘north-is-up’ heuristic, and has been replicated in not only the USA, but also in Bulgaria, Italy, and the Netherlands,” Brunyé said.

Moreover, Brunyé said that right-handed people tend to prefer making right turns. Left-handed people prefer going left, and most people will chose a route that is straight initially, even if it curves and becomes suboptimal later in the journey.

By studying and monitoring people’s choices in navigation (through non-intrusive devices and methods) and by observing patterns of physiology and neurophysiology, Brunyé is developing ways to predict behavior and optimize navigation performance. The goal is to incorporate his observations into Soldier training, providing Soldiers with concrete tips for becoming better navigators in a variety of situations. In addition to training, Brunyé is exploring redesigning tasks and support technologies to better match individual and contextually guided Soldier capabilities and limitations.

The team is also investigating stimulating areas of the brain with low-current, electrical charges. Brunyé said that the low-current charges have been shown to help some poor navigators become better navigators, but the charges do little to help those who are already competent navigators. Brunyé pointed out that brain stimulation could also ultimately be used to accelerate learning or help Soldiers overcome barriers to flexible performance, such as fear, anxiety or lack of confidence.

The research is expected to have a major impact in the future.

“The knowledge garnered from this research could ultimately affect military strategy, including predicting which way an enemy will go,” Brunyé said. “The research also could help predict the movement of friendly personnel who are disoriented or lost. By understanding the way the mind works, we can make some predictions about what people are going to do when they are lost or isolated. This knowledge will help improve survivability and mission effectiveness.”

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