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Knowing: Cognitive Capabilities

Key Topics

The first cog represents cognitive capabilities for observing, collecting and interpreting data and information, and building knowledge relative to the situation or to an enemy. This cog is divided into five areas: Noticing, Scanning, Patterning, Sensing, and Integrating. These areas are means by which we perceive the external world and begin to make sense of it.

In summary, these five ways of observing represent the front line of cognitive capabilities needed to assist the warfighter in creative and accurate situational awareness and building a valid understanding of enemy behavior. To support these cognitive capabilities, we then need processes that transform these observations and first-level knowledge into a deeper level of comprehension and understanding.


The first area of Noticing represents the ability to observe around us and recognize, i.e., identify those things that are relevant to our immediate needs. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of buying a new car and for the next six months recognizing the large number of similar cars that are on the streets. This is an example of a cognitive process of which we are frequently unaware. We notice those things that are recently in our memory or of emotional or intellectual importance to us. We miss many aspects of our environment if we are not focusing directly on them. Thus the art of noticing can be considered the art of "knowing" which areas of the environment are important and relevant to us at the moment, and focusing in on those elements and the relationships among those elements. It is also embedding a recall capability of those things not necessarily of immediate importance but representing closely related context factors.

Attention and focus is important to noticing. We do not notice and miss many aspects of our environment if we are not focusing directly on them. We do not notice if we do not pay attention. People are flooded with data, information and knowledge, for which there is insufficient attention. There are over 2 billion Web pages; the volume of Internet traffic doubles every 100 days. TV ads shrunk from 53 seconds in 1965 to 25 seconds in 1995, Americans were targeted by 561 ads daily in 1971, the number increased to 3000 by 1991. The average US Manager sends and receives 220 messages per day. We need to understand tradeoffs in the finite attention of leaders, employees and customers. Givers of attention have to allocate it to notice.

It is also easier to notice things if we understand how things are related, and if they are relevant to our immediate needs. However, relevancy is subject to an individual's perspective. The same thing could seem to be relevant to one individual, but not to the other even though both of them are in exactly the same situation. Noticing is a first step in building deep knowledge, developing a thorough understanding and a systems context awareness of those areas of anticipated interest. This is the start of becoming an expert in a given field of endeavor related to war fighting.

A classic example of mental exercises aimed at developing latent noticing skills is repetitive observation and recall. For example,2 think about a street you regularly go down. Try to write down everything you can remember about this street. You will discover that despite the fact you've passed down this street often, you can't remember exactly where that bakery is located, or what's on the corner. Then go to the street and write down everything you see. What do traffic signs say? What are the main features of the street? Write a detailed map and remember it. A few days later repeat this exercise. If you make any mistakes, go back to the street again, and as many times as it takes to get it right. Don't let yourself off the hook. You're telling yourself that when details are important you know how to bring them into your memory.

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The second element, scanning, represents the ability to review and survey a large amount of data and information and selectively identify those areas that may be relevant. Because of the exponential increase in data and information, this ability becomes more and more important as time progresses. In a very real sense, scanning represents the ability to reduce the complexity of a situation or environment by objectively filtering out the irrelevant aspects, or environmental noise. Through a system of environmental "speed reading," scanning can provide early indicators of change.

Scanning exercises push the mind to pick up details and, more importantly, patterns of data and information, in a short time frame. For example, when you visit an office or room that you have never been in before, take a quick look around and record your first overriding impressions. What's the feeling you are getting? Count stuff. Look at colors. Try to pick up everything in one or two looks around the room. Make a mental snapshot of the room and spend a few minutes remembering it. As you leave, remember the mental picture you've made of the room. This picture can last for days, or years, despite the shortness of your visit. Your memory may contain the integrated gestalt of the room.

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The third element, patterning, represents the ability to review, study and interpret large amounts of data/events/information and identify causal or correlative connections that over time or space may represent patterns driven by underlying phenomena which may become crucial to understanding the situation or the enemy behavior. This would include an understanding of rhythm and randomness, flow and trends.

Characteristics of patterning include:

A well-known example of the use of patterning is that of professional card players. You can improve your patterning skill by quickly flipping through a deck of cards, three or four at a time. Make a mental picture of the cards. Pause, then turn over three or four more. After doing this two more times, go back to the mental picture of the first set of cards. What were they? Then try to recall the second set, then the third. Don't try to remember the actual cards, close your eyes and recall the mental picture. Patterns will emerge. After practice you will discover your ability to recall the patterns, as well as your ability to recall larger numbers of patterns, will steadily increase. As you increase the number of cards you can recall, you are increasing your ability to recall complex patterns.

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The fourth area, sensing, represents the ability to take inputs from the external world through our five senses and ensure the translation of those inputs into our mind to represent as accurate a transduction process as possible. It is of course well known that our ability to collect information through sensors is limited because of our physiological limitations. For example, we only see a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum in terms of light, yet with technology we can tremendously expand the sensing capability.

As humans we often take our senses for granted, yet they are highly sensitized, complex detection systems that can cause immediate response without conscious thought! An often-recognized example is a mother's sensitivity to any discomfort in her young child. The relevance to "knowing" is, recognizing the importance of our sensory input, to learn how to fine tune these sensory inputs to the highest possible levels, then use discernment and discretion to interpret their inputs.

Exercise examples cited above to increase noticing, scanning and patterning skills will enhance the sense of sight, which is far more than just looking at things. It includes locating yourself in position to things. For example, go outside on a starry night and explore your way around the heavens. Try to identify the main constellations. By knowing their relative position you will know where you are, what month it is, and even an approximation of the time of day. In short, the stars provide you the context to position yourself on the earth.

Here are a few exercise examples for other senses. Hearing relates to comprehension. Sit on a park bench, close your eyes and relax. Stop your mind. Start by listening to what is going on around you - conversations, the birds, rustling leaves. Now stretch beyond these sounds. Imagine you have the hearing of a panther, only multi-directional, because you can move your ears every direction and search for sounds. Focus on a faint sound in the distance, then ask your auditory systems to bring it closer. Drag that sound toward you mentally. It gets louder.

Cup one hand behind one ear and cup the other hand in front of the opposite ear. Now you can actually hear noises from the back with one ear and noises from the front with the other. How does that change your hearing?

Next time you are in a conversation with someone, focus your eyes and concentrate on the tip of their nose. Listen carefully to every word they say, to the silence between their words, to their sighs and the inflection of their voice as it rises and falls. Search for the subtle feeling behind what is being said. When people are talking, most of the information they impart is in their feelings. The words they say are only a code that describes a thought, which is an electrical outcropping of an emotion or subtle feeling. By listening to conversations in this way, you become aware of the subtlety behind what is being said.

There are many games that accentuate the sense of touch. An old favorite is blind man's bluff; more current is the use of blindfolding and walking through the woods used in outdoor management programs. Try this at home by spending three or four hours blindfolded, going about your regular home activities. At first you'll be a bit spasmodic, maybe even frustrated. But your capability to manage yourself using your sense of touch will quickly improve. You will be able to feel your way alone and you'll know where things are, especially things that are alive, such as plants and pets. You just have to focus on their energy to be able to sense it.

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The last element in the first cog is Integration. This represents the top-level capacity to take large amounts of data and information and pull it together to identify meaning or, as is frequently called, sensemaking (Weick, 1998). This capability, to pull together the major aspects of a complex situation and create patterns that represent reality and allow one to make decisions, is one of the most valuable cognitive capabilities in warfare. This capability also applies to the ability to integrate one's own forces and warfighting systems as well.

Characteristics of integration include:

An example within a work environment: You have been asked to coordinate a new, draft policy. This means circulating a document among all the key stakeholders, collecting their comments, synthesizing their comments, and acting on their comments by updating the draft. In order to synthesize and decide what to do, you will need to be able to reach out to the appropriate network of people who will review the draft policy. To determine the network, you will have to examine the situation holistically-identifying all who should have a voice in creating the policy. Spatial ability will be required, to categorize and analyze the comments you receive. Sense making will help you to interpret the gist of the comments and determine the best way to amend the proposed policy.

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