Friday, September 30, 2016

Trauma and Training

I have been much pleased with Nicholas Nassim Taleb's Antifragility, which bsking of Graph Paper Diaries reminded me existed, also reminding me that I would very likely enjoy.  I have.  One of the advantages to this particular high-concept book, which includes some approaches that we don't ordinarily use, is that you don't have to double back to make sure you understand.  Taleb doubles back himself, as each chapter could almost stand alone but bears similarity to many other chapters.  It is a bit chaotic, but that works well in this instance.

I have been applying the idea of antifragility to lots of things that come across my screen these days.  I am too old to rework my life along the lines he thinks best, but there are things I can do, perhaps being an example to my sons and other younger people, that they might put more of this into play. NNT notes as an example exercise physiology, that building up muscle actually involves tearing down muscel a bit, and that building endurance involves getting out of breath.  The body responds by coming back stronger, anticipating that the brain or life circumstances may decide to put it through a similar trial again, or even worse.  The body overprepares slightly.

The USMC has come under heavy criticism lately for things they have done to recruits in training at Parris Island. Most Marines take the view that this level of intensity is necessary at more than one level.  Recruits need to bond together as a unit, they need to learn that they can force their bodies and minds to do more than they thought, they need to experience enough hardship that hardship does not overwhelm them - they are being trained to go into insanely difficult circumstances, after all, so insanely difficult training seems like a good first option.

OTOH, some of the incidents that have come to light are simply abusive, with no obvious benefit. Muscles benefit from the "destruction" of exercise, but cutting your arms off doesn't toughen you up. Combat simply cannot be the first trauma a soldier faces, or he has not been properly trained.  He needs to know that he can function when horrible things are going on, not because someone has made encouraging remarks to build his self-esteem, but because he has already endured some in practice. The Marines brag that they know a great deal because of a 200+ year tradition, and there is a great deal in that.  Even by trial-and-error alone, an institution that actually remembers what has happened learns something.  But really, it wasn't that long ago that potentially valuable soldiers were getting uselessly killed in training exercises that were poorly thought out.

We also know that those who have been deeply traumatised can be more susceptible to further trauma, not less. Sending guys whose neurology has already been seriously bent around by simultaneous concussion, fear, and pain are not going to have an advantage in combat.  But we are starting to know many things, and this is part of it. Mild traumas, with times for recovery in between, may be beneficial, just as they are with exercise.  This happens naturally in some combat situations, as periods of combat intensity alternate with periods of aching boredom = recovery. I believe that designing that in from the start is likely to work better.  Instruction. Trauma. Recovery. Instruction. Trauma. Recovery.  This may also be why some guerilla forces harden and improve over time. A lot of things happen in slow motion.


james said...

“War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”

herfsi said...

antifragile would've made a nice blog post, but did not need to be stretched out into book length! it seemed to me a fairly obvious idea heralded as a "remarkable insight" & then stretched out in to book length simply because he could:) he's done better before! i didn't think his idea was as big a deal as he seemed to think (or that he had to make it look in order to get another book contract).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

When I've finished it I'll tell you if I agree. At the moment I give it a partial yes. The basic idea is rather simple, and a few examples makes it clear what he means. OTOH, learning to apply it to a variety of situations is more difficult as a practical matter, so the repetition isn't bothering me. At present.