The Navy Wants ‘Spidey Sense’ to Spot Bombs

Human intuition may become a weapon

Do you ever get that funny feeling that something is about to happen? Just like Spiderman gets that tingle from his “Spidey sense”?

The U.S. Navy wants to activate that intuition on the battlefield.

The Office of Naval Research has launched a four-year program to teach sailors and Marines to follow their gut feelings when they sense danger.

“Soldiers, sailors and Marines love to tell war stories,” Peter Squire, an ONR program officer for human performance, training and education, told War is Boring. “Many of the best include the phrase, ‘I just had a feeling or hunch.’”

Before we go any further, let’s be clear what this is not. It is not supernatural. Nor is it some mental superpower like Extrasensory Perception. The difference between intuition and ESP is that “intuition is a hunch that is based off of previous experiences,” Squire said in an email.

As an example, Squire cited a case where a firefighter sensed a burning house was about to collapse. He ordered his men out, even though they didn’t sense danger. The house did collapse—and no one was hurt.

“The firefighter was able to sense something was wrong because of previous experience,” Squire said. “Something about the situation did not match up with previous fires that he had fought, and that unconscious process was acted upon and that decision saved lives.”

By contrast, ESP is not rooted in previous experience, Squire explained. “In that case, decisions are not made based on an unconscious hunch, but instead are uninformed guesses.”

The Navy hopes that to train troops to use their intuition to make quick decisions in critical situations where time is short—say, a feeling that there might be a roadside bomb up ahead, or a sense that an object just appearing on radar is a civilian airliner and not an enemy missile.

It may be possible to determine how experts unconsciously detect cues in their environment that trigger this intuition … and then teach that discernment to others. ONR is also looking brain activity, such as electroencephalography, to know when someone is intuiting.

“While it may seem an abstract, intangible concept,” Squires said, “psychology and neuroscience is dedicated to studying these kinds of phenomena.”

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