Research Shows that Teaching People to Control Their Brain Waves may Increase Attention

If you are having trouble paying attention, you are not alone. According to a 2010 study, many of us spend almost 47 percent of our waking hours focusing on or thinking about something other than what we are actually intending to do. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) neuroscientists might have unveiled a solution to help.

Neuroscientist researchers at MIT have found that people suffering from attention difficulty can actually enhance their attention and focus by controlling their alpha brain waves as a result of neurofeedback when performing a specific task.

Subjects during the study were able to learn how to suppress their alpha waves in on hemisphere of the parietal cortex. As a result, they were able to pay better attention to objects that were on the other side of their field of vision. This was the first evidence found of a cause and effect relationship of this kind has been seen, suggesting that people might be able to use neurofeedback to improve their attention.

Neurofeedback has piqued the interest of many people interested in those trying to help people with behavioral problems and brain disorders, according to the director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Robert Desimone. Desimone asserts that this method is entirely noninvasive and is helpful in testing and controlling the role of various aspects of brain activity.

It does remain, however, whether these effects are lasting or if this type of control can be attained by way of other kinds of brain waves, including beta waves, which have been linked with Parkinson’s Disease. Researchers at MIT now plan to do further studies to determine whether neurofeedback of this kind will benefit those suffering from attentional disorders or other types of neurological problems.

Attention and Alpha Waves

The brain is comprised of millions of electrical signals and neurons that bring forth oscillations, or brain waves. Alpha waves are at type of oscillation, which oscillate in the frequency of about 8 to 12 hertz. They are believed to play an active part in filtering out sensory information that is distracting.

There has been previous research regarding the correlation between alpha brain waves and attention – especially where the parietal cortex isconcerned. A lowered level of alpha waves has been connected with heightened or enhanced attention. It is however unclear whether the alpha waves themselves pay an immediate role in the change in attention or are simply a byproduct of another process that directly controls attention.

The researchers at MIT thus performed an experiment to determine whether or not alpha waves play a part in regulating attention. Participants were given real-time feedback on their individual alpha waves while performing a specific task. Participants were asked to look at a pattern in the middle of a screen while using mental efforts to make the pattern more visible while looking at it by increasing the contrast.

Subjects were scanned during the task with magnetoencephalography (MEG), which is useful in revealing brain activity with great precision. Researchers measured the alpha levels in both hemispheres of the parietal cortex, calculating asymmetry between both levels. As asymmetry degrees grew between both hemispheres, the grating pattern was more visible, delivering real-time feedback to participants.

Despite the fact that participants were not told anything about what was going on during the trial, after about 10 minutes or 20 trials, participants were able to increase the contrast of the pattern themselves. The results of the MEG showed that they had done this by controlling their alpha wave asymmetry.

Once the experiment was complete, participants stated that they knew they were controlling the contrast on the screen but were unsure of how they accomplished it.

Although the subjects were not fully aware of how they manipulated their brain waves, they did so and their success resulted in an enhanced level of attention on the opposing side of their visual field. When the subjects looked at the center of the screen, researchers flashed dots of light on either side. The participants were previously told to ignore these flashes but the researchers took note of how the visual cortex of each subject responded to the dots.

One group of subjects was taught how to suppress alpha waves in the left hemisphere while the other was taught to suppress those in the right side. Those who had reduced alpha waves on the left side showed a larger response to light flashes on the right side, while those who were trained to reduce alpha waves on the right side responded more to those seen in the left side of the screen.

Desimone shared that alpha manipulation was essentially controlling the attention of participants although they did not fully understand how they were doing it.

Once the neurofeedback training session had ended, researchers asked subjects to execute two more tasks involving attention. They found that the enhanced level of attention continued into these tasks. Desimone asserted that it is promising that the effects of the training persisted afterwards, suggesting that the boosting of attention and focus can be lasting.

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