Brain-training research leads to enhanced military performance

Research at the University of Exeter’s Sports & Health Sciences department is helping the military improve performance skills in high-stress situations – and all by training their eyes.

Dr Sam Vine and Professor Mark Wilson specialise in the visual, attentional and physiological processes that underpin learning and expertise. They are particularly interested in the quiet-eye phenomenon – where and how the gaze focuses on the key aspects of a task, such as lining up a golf shot or preparing to perform a surgical incision Quiet-eye training, teaching task-specific gaze control, has been consistently shown to optimise the acquisition of motor skills.

In research funded by The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, Dr Vine and Professor Wilson examined the potential benefits of quiet-eye training in a simulated maritime marksmanship task.

“Working with expert shooters, we equipped them with mobile eye trackers – essentially, glasses with cameras – which tracked the position of their gaze while they fired at a virtual-reality simulation of a fast-moving boat with a decommissioned general-purpose machine gun,” said Dr Vine. “The footage recorded was then used as a training tool for novices, to see if this method of training – using videos of experts’ eye movements – helps to speed up learning, and helps make the acquired skills more resilient to the sorts of stresses faced in a military setting. Those include time constraint, stress and anxiety.”

In the study, 20 participants were randomly assigned to a quiet-eye-trained (QET) or technical-trained (TT) group. The QET group displayed more effective gaze control, including longer quiet-eye durations and greater target locking, and more accurate performance. These findings highlight the potential for quiet-eye training to be used to support the training of marksmanship skills in military settings.

“The same process is also being used in foot soldier tasks, performed by military specialist users, and training resources are then created to coach less skilful people or new recruits who need to learn the task,” said Dr Vine.

A continuation of this research is currently underway, and the research team are looking into which apps on smartphones, computers or television are effective in training ‘the brain’ for performance, meaning that military personnel can continue to enhance their cognitive function, even when not at work.

“There are a number of smartphone apps, computer programmes and devices that claim to help train brain functioning,” says Dr Vine. “We are undertaking a review of these devices, and the evidence in support of them. We want to scientifically and objectively examine whether the claims made by the manufacturers are true, to determine whether this training does actually improve real-world performance, and the performance of military skills.”