Fueling an Army of High Velocity Learners
Yul Rapoport, B.J. Adrezin and Joel Garrison
This article is the latest addition to the U.S. Army TRADOC G2 Mad Scientist Initiative’s Future of Warfare 2030-2050 project at Small Wars Journal.
“There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind”
-- Napoléon Bonaparte
The future of Army learning hinges on a fundamental question: will human beings be capable enough to fit into human-machine warfighting systems? Warfighting will involve greater human-machine interface than other automated sectors. The ‘critical mission’ is simple: as war evolves, the Army will need to implement measures to drastically improve mental performance. Future systems will require a revolution in human mental focus. What do we need to do to achieve this? A review of the Army’s current campaign to promote nutrition indicates that the Army under-emphasizes mental performance. Upon a detailed review, almost every component of Army nutrition focuses on physical performance. By the year 2050, humans will have to abdicate a role in warfighting systems if they prove unable to perform. This paper provides a framework on the future of war in 2050 and is also a call to action, providing examples of current and emerging nutritional research to help the Army take its first steps toward a nutrition revolution.
Framework on the Future of War
The nature of war dictates that the victorious are the masters of focus, successfully directing the energies of the mind toward victory. The changing character of war suggests future wars will become more mentally taxing than past wars. Changes in technology are increasing at an exponential pace. The ability to collect, analyze, and actualize information exceeds our human abilities. To make matters worse, for every system developed to manage information, there are equally complex systems attempting to distort and corrupt information processing. This is a major cause of concern, as Clausewitz aptly diagnosed almost 200 years ago, few humans in history can claim the ultimate title of military genius.
The primary challenge for the U.S. Army in 2050 will not be developing a few military geniuses; instead, it will be necessary to build systems of military geniuses. Just like in the past, the art of leadership in future war will depend on mental focus, which will allow the aware mind to delineate important and minute details from the wider mass of available information. Augmented by artificial intelligence, big data, high-speed digitalization, and nano-technology, military success will take an Army of future military geniuses to exercise oversight of warfighting systems. This Army of military geniuses will depend on advanced gaming tools for scenario simulation. These simulations will map out thousands of possible scenarios and Army leaders will make advanced decisions for the future based on these war games. The challenge will be in memorizing these maps and providing a real-time check on scenario implementation to ensure intended reality matches artificial decision-making.
As advances in technology increase available information, technology will ease associated stress on human decision-making capabilities through advances in data analysis, but it will still require enhanced human focus to identify critical and minute details. Keeping pace with technology requires a system of military geniuses able to master high velocity learning, the ability to rapidly absorb and examine vast amounts of data for critical understanding and rapid judgement. Advanced cognitive presence of mind can enable high velocity learning. In a paper titled, ‘Mindfulness as a Method to Enhance Cognitive Performance in Future Strategic Leaders’ (2017) Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Rynele M. Mardis, U.S. Army, “explored and sought to highlight current limitations of the institutionalized practices of cognitive development of future strategic leaders.” Lt. Col. Mardis wrote, “…mindfulness is the practice of actively redirecting one’s attention to those specific areas of importance.” Lt. Col. Mardis concluded his paper with a call to action. He wrote:
The primary aim of the article is to encourage the Army to consider this as a program enhancement to the present strategic leader developmental paradigm. The analysis of research and existing literature emphasized the importance of developing strategic leaders using long-term approaches. To be effective, mindfulness training must begin early and continue throughout military leader development to later influence the decision-making process at strategic levels of leadership. Cognitive enhancement goes beyond training and coaching, however, as it is highly personal and requires an equally high level of cultural support and individual commitment.1
This paper is a call to action put forth by Lt. Col. Mardis, viewing cultural support and individual commitment as a critical component that needs to be included in the Army’s program. This paper further suggests that the future of Army mindfulness is only possible if augmented by ‘Smart Nutrition’ at the individual level. In the future, high-performing Army leaders will be more like high-performance NASCARs, where the body’s fuel is optimized for maximize mental speed and stamina.
The Axis of Food Evil
The adoption of the skills associated with ‘Smart Nutrition’ can lead to a paradigm shift in the eating habits of Soldiers. By the year 2050, eating food just for enjoyment may belong to the dustbin of history. To kick off this revolutionary process, the Army should declare war on the axis of ‘food evil’ known as high fat, meat, sugar and overly processed foods. Smart Nutrition is like a detoxification program to help cleanse Soldiers of the deep associations they form with certain foods in childhood. Military food vendors should be prohibited from the formulation of foods that overstimulate pleasure centers in the brain (i.e. dopamine receptors) such as candy bars, ice cream, hot dogs, french fries, etc2. The Army should incentivize the eating of foods associated with optimal cognitive functioning. These foods are primarily whole plant foods, deliciously prepared to please the palate, yet fuel the brain.
To illustrate this further, consider the impact caused by a ‘quick breakfast’ – orange juice, doughnut, sausage and a cup of milk. Unfortunately, a ‘quick breakfast’ containing dairy, sugar, meat processed with nitrites, and rancid fat causes a blood sugar spike, encourages inflammation, and contributes to a “leaky gut.”3 The consequence is autoimmunity, cognitive decline and overall malaise and mental fatigue.
Our small intestine lining is made of a very thin cell layer, where nutrients from the GI tract are absorbed into the bloodstream. It is also the place that acts as the border and wall that prevents pathogens from being absorbed into the bloodstream and contains a robust immune system which is the first responder to any pathogen that enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract.
Our healthy gut bacteria help to keep the immune system from overreacting to foods and triggering autoimmune responses. If the gut lining is porous due to our diet, then pathogenic bacteria can be absorbed into the bloodstream causing an exaggerated inflammatory response, auto-immunity and development of chronic neurodegenerative diseases resulting in impaired cognition, memory and focus. Foods laden with trans-fat, high fructose corn syrup, hormones and chemicals, such as found in soda, grilled meat, donuts and candy, alter the gut microbiome resulting in chronic inflammation that damages the brain while at the same time increasing cortisol which impairs short and long-term memory and interferes with sleep. The ‘leaky gut’ may also cause headaches, fatigue and lack of motivation at various times throughout the day.3
New research is showing that the majority of our signaling neurotransmitters that act in our brain such as serotonin, GABA, and glutamate are made by our gut bacteria.4 There are approximately 10 times more gut bacteria than there are cells in the whole body! The neurotransmitters produced by our gut bacteria have a major impact on our mood, motivation, focus and attention. Therefore, damaging our gut microbiome from a poor diet can cause anxiety, impulsivity, depression as well as problems with concentration, learning and focus. In a recent study in 2014, Oxford University neurobiologists found that giving people prebiotics, “food” for “good” gut bacteria, resulted in positive psychological effects with less stress, anxiety and better attention.5
Other effects of a ‘quick breakfast’ are irritability and moodiness. This may be a consequence of radical fluctuations in blood sugar over the next few hours. Ultimately, Soldiers will struggle with learning new technical details and get more frustrated when they cannot solve problems as quickly as before thereby increasing their stress level. As blood sugar crashes, Soldiers can crave candy, cookies and soda as a snack. This is especially true if Soldiers work through lunch and are provided little time for breaks.
Thus, begins a vicious spiral that leads to more sugar cravings and ultimately to diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome and chronic neurodegenerative diseases. 4
Finding Mental Sharpness
Changing one’s diet is a process. Soldiers that eat a diet of highly processed foods, such as candy, potato chips, and soda, may find it challenging to taste the natural sweetness in fresh strawberries and sweet potatoes. As Soldiers replace highly processed food with whole plant foods, they will find that their taste buds totally transform in a relatively short time. Taste buds can transform to such an extent that after three months of not eating candy, they may get a taste of how unpleasantly sweet it is. Fresh plant-based foods taste delicious and are energizing. Within months, Soldiers will start to feel physically and mentally healthier.
In addition to the food that is consumed, following a method of regularly “not eating” can have major brain boosting effects. This method puts the body into a state of ketosis for a defined period. Ketosis is the process of the liver producing specific chemicals called ketone bodies (acetoacetate, Beta-hydroxy butarate and acetone) by breaking down fats. Body fat becomes a Soldier’s first source of energy when they run low on carbohydrates. Mild ketosis is optimal for cognitive function. Beta-hydroxy butarate increases production of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) among other effects.8 To promote ketosis, Soldiers should continue to perform moderate exercise daily and fast for at least 12 hours a day. This type of intermittent fasting can contribute to insulin sensitivity as well. Fasting also promotes autophagy where the body repairs, cleans, detoxifies and renews worn out cellular components. Many will notice increased mental sharpness and alertness when fasting. This is no accident and reflects the brain’s production of growth factors that promote new synapse formation.9 Intermittent fasting can be combined with a whole food plant based diet for optimal outcomes.
Increasing Brain Function
Soldiers need to increase the quantity of plant-based food in the diet and decrease the amount of animal food. These foods have multiple functions and benefits in supporting the brain and the body. As mentioned above, some of the functions include sustaining the healthy “gut bacteria” or “microbiome.” Prebiotics are the foods that gut bacteria ‘eat’ to fuel their growth and activity as well as protect the gut from invaders which helps to maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining.
Prebiotics must be indigestible, meaning they must pass through the stomach and small intestine without being broken down. They also need to be able to be fermented by the intestinal bacteria in the colon. Besides maintaining our intestinal health, prebiotics also reduce inflammation; enhance the absorption of minerals, including magnesium, iron, and calcium. Prebiotics decrease appetite, prevent weight gain and lower insulin resistance.10 Common prebiotic foods include: oats, raw chicory roots, artichokes, dandelion greens, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, etc. These foods help to restore the healthy microbiome thereby modulating mood, cognition and preventing autoimmunity.11
In contrast to prebiotics, probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that act to keep the microbiome functioning at an optimal level. Essentially, the prebiotic foods feed and nourish the probiotic bacteria. They help regulate immunity and serve as natural antifungals and antibiotics, maintaining the integrity of the gut and controlling inflammation. The main type of fermentation that makes food probiotic is called lactic acid fermentation. In this process, good bacteria convert the sugar molecules in the food into lactic acid. The lactic acid helps to protect the fermented food from being invaded by pathogenic bacteria because it creates an environment with a low pH which kills off harmful bacteria.
Plant-based sources of probiotics include naturally fermented Sauerkraut, Pickled Fruits and Vegetables, Kombucha tea, Tempeh (fermented soybeans), and Kimchi. You can also get probiotics in supplement form. The strains should contain Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Bifidibacterium lactis, and Bifidibacterium longum.12
As mentioned in the beginning of the section, Soldiers need to increase the quantity of plant-based food in the diet and decrease the amount of animal food to reduce inflammation. Inflammation is a normal physiological process that is designed to heal the body such as when a Soldier cuts his or her finger. The body creates redness and swelling in the area and attracts immune cells that fight bacteria and pathogens that enter through the skin. The finger may get hot and sore as the body sends white blood cells to a Soldier’s finger. Eventually, the redness, swelling and pain go away as the finger forms a scab and heals thus ending the inflammatory process. This is acute inflammation.
Unchecked, acute inflammation acts like a “raging fire,” wreaking havoc on the body. As acute inflammation turns to chronic inflammation, the immune system mounts a heated response, yet it does not fully heal. This happens when Soldiers eat highly refined foods.13 Due to routine poor eating habits, the inflammatory load on a Soldier’s digestive system can cause a postprandial stupor, which contributes to his/ her feeling tired, sluggish and sleepy. This is especially true around 3 pm each day. Poor eating habits cause difficulty with focus, clarity and processing speed. Not only does this impact memory, but verbal recollection as well. If these foods are eaten over time, the brain can start malfunctioning, leading to many of the common diseases we see around us. Chronic inflammation is decreased by a diet of colorful whole plant foods.
Decreasing animal foods as well as refined carbohydrates in the diet can contribute towards bringing the level of systemic inflammation down.14 This choice will flood the body with anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. These colorful plant pigments also work as antioxidants in the body. Research shows that antioxidant supplements may not work and can be carcinogenic in some cases.15 Colorful fruit and vegetables have purely antioxidant properties and have positive effects against inflammation in numerous research studies. Plants have thousands of constituents all working together to contribute beneficial effects to the body. That is why whole foods can be so much more powerful than a supplement that offers just one or two components from the original plant. Many types of spices not only make meals more delicious, but also provide powerful anti-inflammatory and blood sugar balancing effects as well. Two highly researched spices in this regard are turmeric and cinnamon. It is thought that the low incidence of dementia in India may be aided by the liberal use of turmeric in curries.
Building Brain Longevity
The darkest and most colorful foods; for example: blueberries, purple sweet potatoes, purple cabbage, red beans, and black quinoa, are the most anti-inflammatory in the body.16 The pigments that provide the color in these foods are potent phytochemicals that have wide ranging positive effects on the brain and immune system. Some of these effects occur directly in the brain, others are more supportive, such as feeding the microbiome and the liver. The liver is the body’s main organ of detoxification. Many of the chemicals we consume in processed food, environmental pollutants we breathe, chlorinated water, artificial cosmetics we put on the skin, and pharmaceutical medications we take for sickness are detoxified by the liver to protect the brain and other organs from their corrosive effects. If these chemicals aren’t properly detoxified, they can travel through the bloodstream and injure the brain.
Vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, onions, garlic and beets are particularly supportive of optimal liver function. Fruits such as lemons, limes, oranges, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc. are also smart choices to maintain a top level of liver and brain function. By eating a full array of whole plant foods, blood sugar is kept balanced. The blood sugar spikes from eating sugary foods and drinks become a thing of the past. By keeping down the amount of fatty food Soldiers eat, the Army prevents insulin resistance, and its progression into diabetes. The naturally high levels of fiber in whole plant foods further slow the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream. Some foods are especially effective at this, such as legumes. There is research showing a “second meal effect,” whereby beans eaten at a meal earlier in the day will even blunt a glucose spike from a higher glycemic meal eaten later in the day.17
Eating a whole food plant-based diet is the only method of eating that has been scientifically shown to stop and reverse cardiovascular disease. Imaging studies have shown stunning reversal of coronary artery occlusion with this dietary approach.18 A high meat diet has consistently shown an increased level of blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis. This is even the case among populations that eat a diet that includes 100% grass-fed meat. Research shows that a precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease may be atherosclerosis in the cerebral arteries. If this is the case, preventing or reversing brain atherosclerosis through diet may be a significant tool to increase cognitive focus and longevity.
Reaching Optimal Focus
If humans were machines, adopting ‘Smart Nutrition’ would be a matter of programming. Unfortunately, technology sits on the verge of moving beyond human capability. Ironically, artificial food constructs, a product of human innovation, contributes to the degradation of the human brain. Manning future systems requires a revolution in human mental capacity. Even the advent of genetic enhancement or cybernetic brain augmentation are not possible without ‘Smart Nutrition’.
In our experience working with high functioning individuals as well as those in poor health, a committed focus on nutrition, diet, and meal timing results in both immediate and long-term results in improved cognitive performance. For these reasons, we feel that this is a critical area for the Army to consider. A 2017 Rand study suggests that optimizing human performance for ‘mission critical’ purposes require an institutional culture change in the Army. The study concludes that a “20th-century Army perspective on institutional culture change that optimizes human performance seldom advanced beyond ‘mission enhancing’ to ‘mission essential.’19 The study recommends that the Army address optimizing human performance through various frameworks but failed to identify the critical importance of ‘Smart Nutrition.’ As the Army strives to maintain pace with the artificial intelligence revolution, it must embrace a nutrition revolution to improve flesh and blood human capabilities to optimize human performance. Failure to adopt ‘Smart Nutrition’ would put our Soldiers at a disadvantage and would make forecasting learning technologies for the year 2050 an exercise in science fiction.
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“NIH Human Microbiome Project Defines Normal Bacterial Makeup of the Body,” US National Library of Medicine, accessed January 12, 2015, http://www.nih.gov/news/health/jun2012/nhgri-13.htm.
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Kumar H., et al. “Gut Microbiome as an Epigenetic Regulator: Pilot Study Based on Whole-Genome Methylation Analysis”. mBio 5, no. 6(2014): e02113-14.
Slavin, J. “Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits.” Nutrients 5, no. 4 (April 22, 2013): 1417-35.
G. Rizzardini et al., “Evaluation of the Immune Benefits of Two Probiotic Strains Bifidobacterium Animalis, and Lactobacillus paracasei in an Influenza Vaccination Model: A Randomised, Double-Blind Placebo Controlled Study”, Br. J. Nutr 107, no 6 (March 2012): 876-84.
Kempuraj et al. “Brain and Peripheral Atypical Inflammatory Mediators Potentiate Neuroinflammation and Neurodegeneration”. Front Cell Neurosci. 2017; 11:216. Epub 2017 Jul 24.
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Meredith et al. “Identifying Promising Approaches to U.S. Army Institutional Change: A Review of the Literature on Organizational Culture and Climate. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017.” Accessed June 12, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1588.html.