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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Brain Health Program Helps Dallas Police Officers Fight Information Overload

LM Otero
Potential Dallas police recruits take a test during an applicant processing event at police headquarters in Dallas, Texas, on Sept. 7, 2017.

To help combat the mental stress that police officers face on the job, the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas has developed a program to help police in Dallas make better decisions.

The Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training program, also known as SMART, is designed to help officers deal with information overload, says Jennifer Zientz, the head of clinical services at the Center for BrainHealth. 

"SMART is built to help individuals to become more agile thinkers, better complex problem solvers, to become filterers of information," she said, "but also to be deep-level thinkers and innovators."

Interview Highlights: Jennifer Zientz

On what the SMART program does

What we want to do is teach police officers to have the kind of resilience that they want before — so that they build a stronger system — so that when they actually need to be called upon, they've got it there. An amazing amount of tactical training goes into each one of these people. What we're doing is giving them some cognitive tools to help them think about the information — not to undermine or change or alter their training whatsoever — but to enhance what they're doing.

We worked a lot in the leadership command. They're inundated, and it's up and down all the ranks; so much information coming in all the time. What we want to teach them to do is to be able to take in all of the information, whether it's sensory, verbal, and think about what is really important here. “What is the stuff that I need to be paying attention to? What is the stuff that I can filter out? And how do I take that information, draw meaning from it, and then innovatively determine how I'm going to solve the problem or respond in a decision-making moment?”

On the response from officers

A lot of them talk about just the way they do their jobs day in and day out actually has shifted. And it’s not from the tactical, in-the-moment, you know, “I have to deal with this,” but it’s how they’re going throughout their day and how they’re being proactive about what they choose to respond to and what they choose not to respond to. Don’t get me wrong — they have tons of emergencies, always fires, but understanding when and how much cognitive effort they actually want to exert, they can rely and fall back on their training, which is so well engrained.

On the myth of multitasking

We all thought for many, many, many years that multitasking was the ultimate ability. And science is showing us that multitasking is toxic for the brain. And there’s overwhelming evidence of this. There is a cognitive cost, a brain energy cost. The whole idea about “use it or lose it,” I think about it not so much as if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it, but how we use it. Do we overuse it? Are we using it in non-strategic ways? Do we try to go full power all the time? Just because you think multitasking is great doesn’t mean that it is. We didn’t know that before; we didn’t have the technology to be able to know look and see what’s actually happening in the brain.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.