Navy Studies Uses of Intuition

Rapid Response: Navy’s Mad Scientists Seek ‘Sixth Sense’

The Navy is pulling an M. Night Shyamalan. In a tough fight, rely on a “sixth sense,” say its mad scientists, not just your reasoning skills. That’s the way to win wars.

Promising “new insights into intuitive decisionmaking,” the futuristic Office of Naval Research is putting together a new program to turn what it actually calls a “sixth sense” into a military advantage. “Evidence is accumulating that this capability, known as intuition or intuitive decision making,” the scientists say in a new proposal, “enables the rapid detection of patterns in ambiguous, uncertain and time restricted information contexts.” Mastering with intuition, the Navy says, should help troops with “Cyberwarfare, Unmanned System Operators, Information Analysts, Small Unit Leaders and other domains.”

Recent neurological research, the Navy says, undermines two key assumptions about intuition. You don’t need to be be an expert at something for your intuition about it to pay off. And as far as your brainwaves are concerned, your intuition isn’t so structurally different than your considered, logical reasoning.”

“Intuitive decision making processes share some of the same underlying neural structures and cognitive processes as a type of learning known as implicit learning,” the Office of Naval Research states. “Consequently, by acquiring domain knowledge through implicit learning, one may be able to automatically strengthen, at the neural, cognitive and behavioral levels, the same capabilities that are needed for effective intuitive decision making.”

“We still don’t know very much about how intuition works,” Ivy Estabrook, an official with the Office of Naval Research at work on the intuition project, explains to Danger Room. “If research scientists could characterize and distinguish intuitive decisions from the better understood analytic decision making processes, methods might be developed to improve this aspect of human performance.”


The Navy doesn’t want to reserve the power of intuition for seasoned sailors. By commissioning greater study into how it works, the Office of Naval Research wants to “train non-experts to be more effective decision makers.” First, it has to create a “computational model” of how intuition works, followed by “training techniques & technologies that enhance intuitive decision making performance.”

The Navy isn’t the only one intrigued by neurology’s prospects for warfare. Years ago, Darpa sponsored a program called Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts, which sought to break down the cognitive silos between textual data, imagery, audio and other sensory information. And last year, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency sought to get the entire body involved in analyzing satellite data.

How does this benefit the military? Ever since Air Force Col. John Boyd introduced the concept decades ago, there’s a school of thought in military circles contending that tactical advantage in warfare depends on making decisions faster than an adversary. “Analytical decisions are sequential, methodical, and time consuming,” says Cmdr. Joseph Cohn, another Office of Naval Research official. “Intuitive decisions rely on a more holistic approach and take place very quickly — on the order of 100s milliseconds.” In other words, if you master intuition, it’ll be hard for an enemy to act faster than you.

Or you might make boneheaded, self-destructive errors.

For instance: the solicitation cites examples of soldiers “detecting IED emplacements while in a moving vehicle or detecting anomalous civilian behaviors indicative of impending danger.” Their spidey sense just seemed to tingle with an alert. That no doubt happens. But sometimes, intuition fails, especially when mixed with adrenaline, and civilians end up getting shot for driving too close to military or contractor vehicles.

For now, the Office of Naval Research is seeking solicitations about how to structure its Sixth Sense work. Maybe Shyamalan will contribute a pitch.