Navy SEALs Recognize Anger More Quickly

TheSiatonist

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By Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience Contributor
posted: 14 April 2010 05:07 pm ET

The brains of elite soldiers can respond faster to signs of anger than normal, which could help them detect threats and make the difference between life and death when under fire.

The differences in the brains of those who excel in extreme circumstances are poorly understood. Such research might help improve military performance, explained neuroscientist Alan Simmons at the University of California at San Diego.

To investigate the brains of elite soldiers who face extreme circumstances all the time, psychiatrist Martin Paulus with Simmons and their colleagues scanned the brains of 11 off-duty members of the elite Navy SEALs (SEa, Air, and Land special forces) and 23 ordinary healthy men while they viewed faces that displayed either angry, fearful or happy expressions.

"Hopefully this research will help improve the understanding what makes SEALs so special," Simmons said. "They are highly resilient individuals, and if we could help other soldiers to become more resilient to the effects of stress, then that would be a very gratifying result."

The scientists found the insula, a region deep within the brain, activated more strongly in Navy SEALs when they saw angry faces than when compared to ordinary men.

"The insula is important for understanding your body sensations, or gut feelings," Simmons explained. "This suggests that when they see an angry face they do a 'gut check.' This may be because angry faces, but not fearful and happy faces, do require immediate attention for safety in combat."

When it came to happy or fearful faces, the brains of Navy SEALs reacted more slowly than non-SEALS.

"Slower reaction time can indicate reduced attention, increased contemplation, or distracted or multiple processing," Simmons said. "Given the SEALs' capacity to excel in performance-related tasks, it may be most probable that they decide not to exert much effort in responding to faces that are not giving as important information."

Regardless of the emotion they viewed, the SEALs had greater activation on the right side of the insula and reduced activation of its left side, the exact opposite seen in the ordinary men.

"Several researchers have proposed that the right insula is related to action while the left insula is related to maternal and calming responses," Simmons said. "The greater activation on the right side suggests selective attention to threat."

The SEALs the researchers worked with on this study "were amazing individuals," Simmons recalled. "Their capacity to excel mentally and physically is widely known. These findings suggest that this may be achieved not by greater effort but by reducing effort when not needed and increasing it in relevant conditions. They appear to be able to appropriately tune their behavior to the environment."

It remains unclear whether this ability SEALs demonstrate is something they acquired during training or if it existed beforehand. Future research could test soldiers before or after training.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation and private institutions, is detailed online April 14 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Source

I would wager that this ability is in-born rather than something being acquired during/after training.
 
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8'Duece

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It remains unclear whether this ability SEALs demonstrate is something they acquired during training or if it existed beforehand. Future research could test soldiers before or after training.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation and private institutions, is detailed online April 14 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Source

I would wager that this ability is in-born rather than something being acquired during/after training.

I would concur, but without any real psychiatric knowledge to give my agreement any substance.
 

Rapid

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Thanks for posting that article. It'll be a good reference for my next piece of work in biopsychology.

Reminds me of this:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3402-molecular-secret-of-special-forces-toughness.html

Like with pretty much everything in psychology these days, we accept that it's not as plain as black or white. It's not just biological or environmental; it's a mix of both. While it may be common for elite military personnel to have such natural abilities, their training will have harnessed that power and honed it even further. How much further? And which aspect plays the biggest part? Those questions would have to be resolved by advanced tests. You'd have to test recruits just as they'd be entering the military, and then retest the same ones after they'll have acquired a year's operational experience in a SOF unit. You'd most likely see a difference, but of course, as I just said, the question is how much?
 

Jael

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I love things that relate to psychology, very interesting stuff, this is just my :2c: i don't have a degree in Psych yet.

I would be willing to bet that it is gained during training and in field experience rather then something the person was born with. I would figure that someone in the field with more experience begins to notice facial movements, ques etc etc through their time spent deployed or during training. It would be nice to do what they said and test pre training and then post training, even go farther as pre deployment and post deployment.

If every SEAL has this type of activity in their brain I would say odd's are it is training rather then born with due to the odds that if it was in fact born, not every SEAL would have it (playing with the law of averages here.).

What I would like to see for more proof is other people who are considered to have "stressful" jobs, take for example nurses or other medical personnel that work directly in high gun crime hospital areas that specifically work in the ER, and test the same images but add in some other facial ques like pain for example and see how they react, test larger numbers as well just to make sure. Also Police, other SOF members if permitted.
 
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8'Duece

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I love things that relate to psychology, very interesting stuff, this is just my :2c: i don't have a degree in Psych yet.

I would be willing to bet that it is gained during training and in field experience rather then something the person was born with. I would figure that someone in the field with more experience begins to notice facial movements, ques etc etc through their time spent deployed or during training. It would be nice to do what they said and test pre training and then post training, even go farther as pre deployment and post deployment.

If every SEAL has this type of activity in their brain I would say odd's are it is training rather then born with due to the odds that if it was in fact born, not every SEAL would have it (playing with the law of averages here.).

What I would like to see for more proof is other people who are considered to have "stressful" jobs, take for example nurses or other medical personnel that work directly in high gun crime hospital areas that specifically work in the ER, and test the same images but add in some other facial ques like pain for example and see how they react, test larger numbers as well just to make sure. Also Police, other SOF members if permitted.

Interesting points.

One can take any sample group and match it again'st a control group and come out with expected outcomes to their research.

Training or inherent in the job/skill set over time ?
 

Jael

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I've been thinking of that question for a bit, would it be initial training or overtime, here's what I threw together.

I would imagine that training would lay a foundation that sets the bar above your average joe, but experience in the field is really what would be seen on paper in something like this. Overtime in the job/skill set like you mentioned, you would be interacting more and more with people, getting to know ticks, ques, signals, facial expressions, even something so slight that the normal person would not notice because you are actively looking for it because in essence, your life depends on it so your brain would begin to function faster towards certain things that you would perceive as a threat, and you would react accordingly to your training which in this case I'm going to assume is quite fast, so the readings would be much higher then your average person and because of how you were trained to respond to a threat, it would be instinct in your brain to feel/respond to it, even if its just a picture.
 

Rapid

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Jael said:
I would be willing to bet that it is gained during training and in field experience rather then something the person was born with.

Based on all the biopsychology research I've seen, I'd be willing to bet the opposite. Here's why:

When it came to happy or fearful faces, the brains of Navy SEALs reacted more slowly than non-SEALS.

What you're suggesting is highly unlikely, as it would essentially mean that SOF personnel are born stupid (which is far from the case). Let me explain: first of all, remember that SOF personnel tend to react slower to other emotions (happiness/fear). If they had to be 'taught' to react to anger, then that would mean that they were born with slower abilities across their whole spectrum of emotions (definitely indicating some kind of mental problem). Basically, it would mean that if SOF personnel never joined the military and never got their training, then they wouldn't be able to react normally to any kind of emotion (quite abnormal -- a 'normal' person can at least detect happiness/fear). That would make them a bit 'slow', and I think we can all agree that SOF personnel are far from "slow"... What is a lot more likely is that they were simply born with the inverse abilities of 'normal' people.

In order for what you're suggesting to be true, SOF personnel would have to have the best of both worlds (i.e. they'd have to the abilities of normal people too, on top of this refined detection of anger), unfortunately they don't.

To me, this all points back to natural instincts, i.e. in support of fight or flight (you tend to do either one or the other), etc. Men are simply born into two categories: the dead or the deadly. Those who are born deadly simply have such abilities. If you're the 'fight' kind of person, then it's normal that you would have these instincts as part of your persona.

You could always suggest that they might've had the ability to interpret other emotions before they became SOF (and that this ability was pushed out to be replaced by a new one dealing with anger), but that's highly unlikely too. Human beings rarely, completely 'lose' their mental abilities because of training programs (usually, mental abilities can only be completely lost through disease or brain damage).

The SEALs in this study showed more activity in their right insulas, and the inverse in their left insulas. The human brain doesn't really change so significantly on a physical level, first of all, and, secondly, it'd also be even more unlikely based on the timespan we're looking at. Again, everything points back to them being born with this 'inverse' ability to interpret emotions.

Finally, the "law of averages" doesn't apply to SOF, because people in SOF are hardly "average". Only the best succeed, hence why it's natural that when you do tests on elite personnel, you find that their mental capabilities in common with their tasks are quite high. It's not that they acquired them through training... it's that they most likely always had them, which is what helped them succeed in joining in the first place. However, their training undoubtedly hones and refines these natural abilities -- but it's a lot easier when the groundwork is already there (in such cases, the biological aspect counts for a lot).

Those who already have these foundations are much more likely to succeed in joining SOF, which, in turn, explains why so many in SOF do have these characteristics. It's not that being able to detect anger will necessarily help get you through SOF selection/training that much easier -- rather, they would be of more help to real operations --, but it's that these mental abilities come in a package. SOF personnel tend to have many other useful heightened abilities, such as being a lot more resistant to stress (see the article that I posted on SF soldiers and neuropeptide Y).
 

TheSiatonist

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Exactly my thoughts, Rapid.

I remember reading several stories on Reader's Digest couple of years back about brothers/twins who both went to BUD/s since they both really wanted to become SEALs but ended up with only one sibling completing the program. In each of the instances, both siblings were athletic (varsity football players, etc.) and were basically raised in the same environment, but I always wondered why only one would make it through.

That's just my take on this study. For anyone who's interested, here's the full article of the study.
 

Rapid

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Twins are interesting and quite useful to study in psychology. Do you know if they were dizygotic or monozygotic? It's a huge difference in terms of what twins have in common.

But to me that anecdote is further proof that genes aren't a guarantee to success. Nor is the right mindset, as it's still possible to fail (shit happens, injuries, etc). My guess is one bro got lucky (or the other one was unlucky, or a mix of both). Excluding those factors, there's of course the possibility that one of them wanted it more than the other; i.e. twins don't necessarily have the same goals in life, and one of them might've decided it wasn't for him.
 

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I would wager that this ability is in-born rather than something being acquired during/after training.

If this were true, then it would imply that only those "born with that thingy" have a chance at becoming part of the elite SOF world. There for, you would ptobably refocuss your attention to individuals with that particular 'marker'. But as experiance tells us, its not always the "big guy" that makes it through BUD/S. Some times its the little guy whos team wins the log race, its the little guy carrying the M-60, its the little guy who pulls out a 200 pund Marine from a burning tank.
My point is, even IF males who make it through the gruelling selection process into Special Operations, have that capability inherit in their geens, it will never be a deciding factor whether or not they are suitable for this kind of work. Besides, training a Soldier is often also baced on psychology, as much as phisiology. You cant build one and slight the other.
BUD/S started in 1942, and the Navy has yet to come up with a perfect "reciepie" of what makes a SEAL. The only way to find out is to get your ass to San Diego.

Still, the article only proves what man has known since the dawn of warfare - Soldiers are different. They always have been, they always will be.
 

Rapid

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The biological argument isn't really a question of "big guys"; this is all to do with the brain (and chemicals in your body), not muscle. It comes back to having the right mindset. But if you weren't born with it, that doesn't mean in any way that you can't make it through. It just happens that a lot of those who do make it through seem to have these superior capacities. The most important thing is your attitude and your mindset. But chances are that if you've got a great mindset, you've got a great mind too (with the ability to do all this stuff).
 

Jael

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What you're suggesting is highly unlikely, as it would essentially mean that SOF personnel are born stupid (which is far from the case).

I wasn't insinuating that SOF are born stupid, I was stating that in my estimate of what ive read, every person would start out at a certain level, however these SOF soldiers would have gone through much more intensive training which would speed up the process the brain perceives threats as that is directly related to the career field, as you said they are the best of the best, so their natural instincts and brain functions are different and in this case sharper then the average computer joe.

I should have clarified by "taught" soto speak but more so conditioning the already present reaction to become quicker based on the situation presented...I hope that makes sense.

You are absolutely correct on the biological aspects I cannot present an argument on that, but the links you all posted were nice and informational thank you for them.

I wish I could see raw data on this with larger numbers, hopefully they continue to post this stuff up.
 

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I think that is an innate quality. A certain sensitivity that some have. Can people acquire it through training?-Sure-but not to the degree as the people who actually are predisposed to it. Fascinating article.
Want to research this baby more.
 
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