NATICK, Mass. (Sept. 4, 2015) — Soldiers can’t avoid stress, but researchers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, are leading a study to investigate ways to help Soldiers increase their cognitive resilience under stress.
NSRDEC is working in collaboration with the Human Research and Engineering Directorate, or HRED, at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, located at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
“A Soldier who is out in the field in a battle-type context is under very high demands – mentally, emotionally and physically,” said Dr. Marianna Eddy, a research psychologist on NSRDEC’s cognitive science team. “They can be emotionally and physically fatigued. Cognitive resilience is the ability to perform well under those stressors. Performing well can mean a variety of things, such as making a good decision. For instance, deciding whether to call for reinforcements or making a split-second shoot or not-to-shoot decision.”
“We are interested in characterizing individual differences in the way that cognitive processes can break down under stress,” said Dr. Caroline Davis, who has a background in emotion, stress and anxiety research and is a research psychologist on NSRDEC’s cognitive science team. “During an acute stressor, some people are able to maintain peak performance much better than others. Our goal is to identify metrics that predict such individual differences, and to use this information to develop training strategies that will allow all Soldiers to maintain optimal cognitive performance both during and immediately following extreme stress.”
NSRDEC and Tufts University, which jointly created the Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Sciences, are also conducting a parallel effort examining cognitive resilience in the civilian population.
“The work at the center can be used as a foundation for the work we are doing in collaboration with ARL-HRED,” Eddy said.
“The studies we are conducting at the Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Sciences are being conducted in a lab where we have tight experimental control,” Davis said. “Our collaboration with the Cognitive Assessment and Simulation Engineering Laboratory at ARL-HRED allows us to move these laboratory-based studies into a somewhat more realistic, Soldier-relevant environment.”
Stress affects a Soldier’s memory and decision-making as well as the ability to act and react.
“We want to know what it is that allows some people to overcome these challenges and perform well,” Eddy said. “People can tell us about their coping mechanisms, but we are also interested in what is going on in their brains. To do this, we are running an electroencephalography [EEG] study in collaboration with the Translational Neuroscience Branch at ARL-HRED. We outfit the Soldiers with an EEG cap and some other sensors that measure physiological responses to emotional stimuli, such as changes in breathing patterns, sweat responses and facial muscle activity.”
“We are also looking at the way that personality traits, such as impulsivity or emotion-regulation style, interact with an individual’s biological stress response to promote resilience,” Davis said.
Finding ways for Soldiers to become more cognitively resilient may help increase Soldier performance and possibly improve decision-making, effectiveness and survivability.
“We have a unique ability to impact the Soldier,” Davis said. “I am excited to be entering this rapidly growing field that has recently started to attract a lot of attention, and I think that we have real potential to improve life for the Soldier.”
“It’s rewarding to interact with Soldiers and see that they are excited about what we are doing,” Eddy said.
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.