Reduce the Cognitive Load

The old adage, just because you can doesn’t mean you should rings true over and over in the simulated combat environment.

What do I mean by this? I am capable of a great many things. I’m a decent radio operator, decent gunner and am working on my small unit leadership. However, just because I am capable of doing all of these things doesn’t mean that I can perform each task effectively at the same time. Why? There are simply too many things to think about. Do I focus on moving my troops or suppressing the enemy? I can only do so much at once.

My point here is that it’s important to not take on more than you can handle. As I alluded to above, it’s easy to try to be the squad leader/RTO/medic/shuttle door gunner/be all end all to everyone. However, this is also a great way to fail your unit’s mission before it even starts. Even if you really are a super soldier and the best at everything, it’s important to spread the responsibility around. This not only spreads the tasks out over multiple processors (brains), it also allows for others to train and improve and provides multiple viewpoints into the overall knowledge pool. Studies have proven that putting several heads together is almost always more effective than depending on one person to make every decision. Bottom line? Pick a job and get really good at it. When I need an RTO, I don’t need someone that is kinda good at talking on the radio and 5 other things – I need a radio expert. Cross training is vital, but do one job at a time on mission.

In a similar vein, technology has advanced to the point that operational tempos are faster than ever and the ability to cram and brain dump is at a premium. Every member of a unit must memorize certain details such as the route they are to take, callsigns and passwords, the phases of execution and various other actions. Leaders, RTOs, medics, etc have even more to memorize. Below is an excerpt from my Eastwind 7 experience to give you a better understanding of how this feels:

Building on our earlier success, we were sent on another similar mission. We were to infiltrate East Germany and set multiple ambushes…As we were preparing to roll out, there was much yelling and we sprinted to two mutts and flew out of base. Apparently, the joint British/West German section had reported contact a few minutes prior and had not been heard from since. 

Due to our accelerated departure, we ended up in the field roughly 30 minutes early. This is significant because we were scheduled to change SOI (radio code) cards about 20 minutes after our original step off time. This meant that I had two SOI cards with me on the mission as I would have to communicate before and after the change. I had prepped most of my transmissions with the new SOI as I only had one scheduled transmission before the change. What this effectively means is that all my radio transmissions were written down in Spanish  while the whole radio net was speaking French!

As we walked off on our patrol, I fumbled around with my notebook and SOI card attempting to formulate a message advising the TOC that we were OK and were headed to our mission objectives as planned. In the middle of all this were two other units talking with the TOC, so I had to jockey for free air time to send my messages. Just as I was able to get my traffic through, my squad leader turned around and asked me to send in a 9 line (request for medical assistance) to evacuate one of our squad members as she was not feeling well. Now picture this. I’m walking down the road, attempting to stay in my place of a bounding overwatch (one fireteam moves while the other covers). In my hands are my M16, map, notebook and SOI card. Mentally, I’m trying to watch my sector, search the map for a good pick up point for our casualty and keep an ear to the radio traffic to have some sort of understanding what’s going across the AO.


Suddenly it all flies out the window. I hit the dirt and send my “contact wait out” transmission. I look to my left and see two of my guys are down. Looking up the hill, I see nothing but hear sporadic small arms fire. I think, good at least they suck at springing an ambush! The TOC sends back a perfectly coded message to which I reply “Send it in the clear! I’m in contact!” I don’t remember what they sent back, perhaps I didn’t even hear them.

As you can see, these were some high stress and overwhelming moments! Not only was my multitasker on overdrive, I had few to no brain cells left over to fulfill my duties as a rifleman (watching my sector and keeping my position in the formation) which I consider a critical error. So what do I propose that you do to help ease your brain? Write it down! Not only does writing something down help you remember it, it lets your brain off the hook on some of the details freeing it up for other important activities. If I had been more proactive in the situation above I would have had a 9 line and various other standardized transmissions pre-coded in both SOIs that I expected to use instead of just one. This seemingly insignificant oversight lead to an intense situation and unnecessarily messy radio communications.

Now, obviously in the interest of operational security, there are many things you cannot write down but there are times when a simple cheat sheet can take just enough of the cognitive load to make a difference. Success and failure can be decided in the blink of an eye – sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference and allow you to think clearly when you need it the most.

This of course is not just applicable for tactical details. it can be applied many other ways as well. RTOs routinely carry cheat sheets to fill in to help them with 9 and 7 line requests, along with various callsigns and codes. Another good example of this is the dope book/dope sheets used by marksmen to keep track of their holds over various rounds and weapon systems.

Now, like with anything else it’s important to not go overboard with this concept. If something were to happen, it is important to ensure the enemy does not get his hands on said cards, and having them scattered all through your kit is just inviting disaster should you have to act on short notice. In my Eastwind story I ended up burying my notebook during that firefight once most of my squad was killed and I burned an SOI card mid mission several days later.

So what’s the takeaway? Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Whether it’s by accepting too much responsibility or failing to use memory aids and cheat sheets it’s vital not to get cognitively bogged down on mission and keep a portion of that noggin free to process the constant stream of incoming data on mission.