di Cristiano Galli

This article is a deep dive from the July issue article “Trending topics for an augmented military human resource and beyond”. One of the highlighted trends was the opportunity to develop wearable sensors in order to provide students with real time personal and team performances feedback so to facilitate self-awareness and self-reflection processes.


Back in the 90’s, most of the debriefing time of flying officers with the instructor was spent in realigning personal perspectives about what really happened during training missions. Contradicting or arguing with an instructor was simply not allowed. If the Instructor said that something happened, that had to be taken for granted. The point is that human brain does not function in this way. Memories are a personal and unique construction of reality. There is never a fully shared objective reality that can be replicated into different people’s brain. This is extremely important for educational and training programs because perceived reality is the first brick that needs to be in place for further sustainable behavioral changes. We need to be convinced that something is real to be able to do something to change it.


Few years afterwards, debriefing systems allowed to show real time video, audio and system status recording. There was no need to convince the students that something had happened. It was there for them to see and listen. More time could be effectively devoted to understand why things went the way, focusing our reflection on a shared perception of reality.


Many other fields have benefited by the use of technology to optimize the learning process. Some can easily recall the odd feeling of listening to their own voice recorded during a speech or a video taken during public speaking performances, having a hard time in recognizing him/herself in that recording.

But “that” recording is actually the way people perceive the speaker. This process is called feedback and is essential in order to reduce what Johari Windows calls “the self blind spot” or “what others know about myself and I don’t”. Present wearable technology is allowing educational and training systems to implement more invasive collection of personal and social data in order to provide the students with objective tools to reduce their personal blind spot, increase personal awareness and develop new sustainable behaviors.


What can we measure and what do we need to measure?


First of all, based on the studies conducted by Sandy Pentland and his staff at MIT, we can measure communication architecture inside teams and make an educated guess on team performances. Pentland discovered that “how” a team communicate is far more important than “what” is communicated. By the use of what they call “sociometric badges”, Pentland Lab at MIT was able to record parameters related to number and quality of personal interactions and come up with 3 parameters: Energy, Engagement and Exploration. The distribution of these measurable indicators has been scientifically linked to team performances. Then we can collect individual parameters related to personal emotional and cognitive load. Emotional arousal, related to emotional eliciting stimuli is a fundamental indicator of personal emotional load and is not an easily accessible information for self-consciousness. Most people are constantly unaware of their own physiological and psychological emotional functioning.


Use of dedicated armbands can easily collect parameters like heart and breathing rate, reliable indicators of autonomic system functioning (sympathetic and parasympathetic). Another important parameter, also used in neuroscientific research, is the SCR (Skin Conductance Response). Collecting these indicators during training and feed them back to the students after training sessions could provide the students with insights about their emotional status during training. They would not been able to tell the students what and how they felt, that can only be done through a self-reflecting process, but they could increase their awareness on the physiological state they were in. Pretty much the same effect of a video for a public speaking session.


Last but not least, sensors should collect data about what is technically called “cognitive load”. Cognitive load theory has proven to be a very good predictor of rational thinking abilities. Rational thinking is a core process in behavioral change processes. Daniel Kahneman has studied and described two different mental processing machinery we have in our brain. System 1 is the oldest evolutionary part of the brain, and it is involved in automatic behavioral responses. It works efficiently and uses association processes in order to best guess quick solutions to a given issue or problem (System 1 can often be overlapped with the Limbic System). System 2, instead, is the most recent human brain evolutionary product. It is dedicated to more complex tasks and problems and is located in the PFC (Pre Frontal Cortex). The problem is that, being so recent, it is not efficient. It needs high energy levels and is extremely limited in the amount of data processing ability (mostly related to the limited capacity of the working memory).


System 2 activation is a core requirement for brain rewiring. System 2 is responsible to address everything that is perceived as “new”, so this is a core step in the learning process. Adults learn only when they perceive that something is new and needs to be addressed.


Indicators of this cognitive load can be measured in pupils. It is called pupillometry. Parameters related to pupil fixation, saccade, dilation, blink rate and duration, can be used to estimate individual system 1 and system 2 activation. 



In short, research is focusing on wearable sensors in order to measure:


  1. Individual parameters:

    1. Emotional arousal and response to eliciting events

    2. Cognitive load predictors of system 2 activation


  1. Team parameters

    1. Quality and quantity of personal interactions

    2. Energy, engagement and exploration distributions


This advanced approach to training and education is also linked to a divisive ethical issue. The balance between “need of effectiveness” in human resource development and “need to protect the privacy” is at stakes.


The field is definitely innovative in the educational and training business, therefore it is difficult to foresee future developments, but it can be argued that it is similar to other previously addressed issues in the field. In the last few decades, technology and scientific research has provided remarkable opportunities for spilling over personal boundaries. But once technology becomes available, the next step should be the identification of its appropriate use for constructive purposes. This technology is already extensively used in marketing and news business, so, if we can use it to sell something to people, why not using it for allowing people to improve themselves?