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Darpa investigates: The triggers of threat response

Darpa investigates: The triggers of threat response

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What actually triggers instinctive reactions to risk and danger? DARPA wants to find out.

What actually triggers instinctive reactions to risk and danger? DARPA wants to find out.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded a researcher based at the University of Colorado at Boulder a grant of $300,000 to investigate the neuroscience behind these reactions, Wired reports. If we know the processes behind anxiety, flinches or instinctively recoiling from a perceived threat, then DARPA hopes this knowledge may eventually be used in new weapons development and improvements in combat strategy.

Professor of integrative physiology Dr. Alaa Ahmed will be using "neuroeconomic models" to try and improve instinctive reactions to threats. Ahmed told Wire's Danger Room:

"Traditionally, in movement control, it's always been assumed that we're rational decision makers, that we have a good estimate of the movement uncertainty -- like how accurate I am -- and that we have a good estimate of the reward structure in the task, whether it's explicit or implicit."

However, instinct does not necessarily adhere to what we'd consider 'rational behavior' -- unless it is a subconscious rationality based on emotion -- in other words, aversion to the promise of pain or danger. Ahmed continued, "people seem to be irrational in their movement decision, which suggests that risk is influencing the decision."

So, it stands to reason that by studying the risk-seekers and risk-avoiders among us, links may be found between these 'types' of people and their instinctive reactions to different scenarios.

The professor will be using movement games to gauge motor controls and reactions to test this area. One test, for example, will involve subjects standing on a platform and using a cursor to reach a target and score points -- but move too close and the participant will 'fall' off the cliff.

Relate this to combat scenarios, and you may be able to study reactions and decision-making processes -- including when to pull a trigger or how close to move to an area considered dangerous. Stress affects soldiers in different ways, and the study aims to discover any links between risk-taking and underreacting or overreacting to pressure which may result in severe consequences for a military operation.

If links are found between these models and decision-making, then military training as well as weapon development may be updated. Wired suggests that "one possibility is creating physical simulations to provoke moderate stress in soldiers, then placing the soldiers into a high-stress environment, studying the results, and then training troops' minds to reach the best outcome."

Neuroscience is still a grainy area of research, and the link between threat and instinct is not solid. However, it is an interesting turn for the U.S. military to take, and perhaps improving its understanding of the human psyche will improve soldier performance in the field.

(via Wired)

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Matthew Coffee

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure