On Target

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Training methods developed at MCG help camouflage breakers find a target in less than a second.

After looking for just one-twentieth of a second, experts in camouflage breaking can accurately detect not only that something is hidden in a scene, but precisely identify the camouflaged target, a skill set that can mean the difference between life and death in warfare and the wild, investigators report.

They can actually identify a camouflaged target as fast and as well as individuals identifying far more obvious “pop-out” targets, similar to the concept used at a shooting range, but in this case using easy-to-spot scenarios like a black O-shaped target among a crowd of black C shapes. 

In fact, the relatively rapid method for training civilian novices to become expert camouflage breakers developed by Medical College of Georgia neuroscientist Dr. Jay Hegdé and his colleagues, also enables the camouflage breakers to sense that something is amiss even when there was no specific target to identify.

This intuitive sense that something is not quite right has also been found in experienced radiologists finding subtle changes in mammograms, sometimes years before there is a detectable lesion.

The MCG investigators who developed the camouflage breaking technique wanted to know if trainees could detect the actual camouflaged target or just sense that something is different, an issue that is highly significant in real world circumstances, where a sniper might be hiding in the desert sand or a dense forest landscape.

“Merely being able to judge, no matter how accurately, that the given combat scene contains a target is not very useful to a sniper under real-world combat conditions if he or she is unable to tell where the target is,” Hegdé and his colleagues write in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. 

They already knew that they could train most nonmilitary individuals off the street to break camouflage in as little as an hour daily for two weeks as long as their vision is good, a finding they want to benefit military personnel.

“We want to hide our own personnel and military material from the enemy, and we want to break the enemy’s camouflage,” says Hegdé, goals that summarize his research, which has been funded by the Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, for nearly a decade. “What are the things we can tweak? What are the things we can do to make our snipers better at recognizing camouflage?”

Because a missed shot by a sniper also tells the enemy his location. “You can’t take shots at things that are not the target,” Hegdé says.

Hegdé notes that even with his training, some people are better at breaking camouflage than others — he says he is really bad at it — and why remains mostly a mystery and another learning point for Hegdé and his colleagues.

For this newly published work, six adult volunteers with normal or corrected-to-normal vision were trained to break camouflage using Hegdé’s method. Coauthors Isabelle Noel Santana and Allison JoAnna Lewis were undergraduate apprentices of the U.S. Army in Hegdé’s lab when the work was done. Lewis is now an MCG medical student. First author Fallon Branch is a U.S. Navy veteran.