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A driving test could lead to new technology that determines how soldiers are assigned to units

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ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Circa) -- Oftentimes, soldiers are assigned to a specific unit based on logistics or rank, but in the future, that might not be the case.

Jean Vettel, a neuroscientist at the Army Research Lab, is hoping her team's research will lead to new technology that assigns soldiers to units based his or her physiological response to different forms communication.

"Our goal in this study is really to drive new methods, new analysis tools, so that we can start to understand how we can actually look at the successful communication between people, as what's predicting of the memory recall rather than just something within a given person," Vettel said.

As part of their research, Vettel's team fits volunteers with EEGs, which record the electrical activity on the scalp. Before any of the volunteers hit the road, they answer a series of questions about things that could affect communication, like their recent sleep history or caffeine intake.

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Then the pair jumps in the car for about an hour-long drive on the highway and back roads. As the driver navigates through traffic, unexpected jaywalkers and other obstacles, the passenger starts talking about 16 specific news stories. All the while, researchers are collecting data about the way both volunteers react to information conveyed during the trip to see how effectively the pair is communicating.

When the volunteers return from their trip, the driver has to perform a recognition memory task to see which and how much of those 16 news stories they actually remembered.

"We can then go back into the data [from] during the drive and say, 'Okay, out of 16 they remembered items one, five, seven and 12,'" Vettel explained. "We can then look at the corresponding physiological data from the brain and the body, and look to say, 'Okay, was there actually increased synchrony between the driver and the passenger whenever they were sharing this information?'"

In the future, Vettel said they envision using a sort of "real-time" piece of technology that could track how well information has been shared or whether the person on the receiving end actually comprehended it.

"That can then drive how the battalion, larger teams, get put together to do missions," she explained. "You can imagine it's a way that the commander can have a more nuanced insight into how well that team is going to perform."

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Ultimately, Vettel said she and her team are looking at communication and how science can recognize good decision making.

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Although the military is at least 5-10 years away from implementing this, Vettel said the Army Research Lab is looking to develop sensors "that are essentially embedded in a soldiers' helmet, that whenever they put on their protective gear, they've put on the sensors that we're going to record from."

Vettel compared it to the way people are wearing Fitbits and Apple Watches to track their steps.

"We envision that eventually, that will essentially be brain data, heart data, it will all just be embedded in our clothes," she added.

That way, commanders will be able to look at the data and assign specific soldiers to a mission based on how well they work together and communicate.

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