A two-year study of unusual ways of improving human performance, prepared for the Army, found that some unconventional techniques such as sleep learning could be useful for military training.

The techniques "have shown sufficient promise during scientific tests to merit further study by the Army for possible applications to soldier training," said John Swets, chairman of the National Research Council committee that evaluated the techniques. The council is the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

The report, "Enhancing Human Performance," cost $425,000. Among the techniques investigated by the 14-member NRC committee were biofeedback, the targeting of either the left or right side of the brain for different kinds of learning, altered mental states and various forms of visual and mental practice. The committee also looked at extrasensory perception (ESP) and other parapsychology techniques such as remote viewing, precognition and clairvoyance.

"Some people, including military decision-makers, can imagine potential military applications of psychic phenomenon," the report said. If ESP exists, it could be used for intelligence gathering. Psychokinesis (or mind-over-matter) might be employed to jam enemy computers, trigger nuclear weapons and incapcitate weapons and vehicles, the report said.

But the committee said it found no scientific evidence for paranormal phenomena. "Perhaps our strongest conclusions are in the area of parapsychology," Swets said. "The best available evidence simply does not support the contention that these phenomena exist."

The committee also found that biofeedback, a technique to alter one's physical state -- warming hands or feet, for example -- through mental concentration is not as effective as its proponents sometimes claim.

Biofeedback "can reduce muscle tension," according to the report, but is not useful for reducing emotional or mental stress. "Decreasing uncertainty is the best technique for reducing stress," said Dr. Ray Hyman, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a member of the NRC committee.

What did prove to hold some promise, according to the study, were sleep learning, guided imagery and certain aspects of what is known as accelerated learning. For example: Information presented during the lighter states of sleep "seems to bolster the ability to learn the same material during waking hours," Swets said. In addition, the committee found evidence that information is better remembered under the same conditions it is learned, a finding the panel said could have important implications for battle-weary soldiers. Future soldiers might be trained under the conditions that they are required to use their skills.Guided imagery, a practice by which an action such as driving a golf ball is first imagined, "appears to be effective for enhancing motor skills," Swets said. This type of guided imagery is now used by some sports teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys, and by Olympic athletes to improve their performance during games and competitions. The committee found that the best performance was achieved when mental practice was combined with physical practice and when the skill required concentration, for example, rifle marksmanship.

"Superlearning" or accelerated learning programs that involve special background music or relaxation exercises also seem to be beneficial, the committee found, although not for the reasons that they are usually touted. There is little evidence to suggest that these programs work because of their innovative components, Swets said, but the "holistic approach may be beneficial. The Army should try to identify which components are most important and how they are best integrated for military use."