UNE is on the forefront of many disciplines when it comes to research. One discipline that might not be expected is neuroscience, the science of the brain. There are amazing things being done by the researchers here that have the potential to totally redefine what we think of as ‘learning’. PhD student Harley Macnamara, under the supervision of Dr Graham Jamieson, is asking questions about the brain that have never been asked before, using a revolutionary technique called ‘Neurofeedback Training’.
Neurofeedback is a relatively new idea in neuropsychology - it combines a handful of existing techniques and concepts into something truly new and exciting. In short it gives the ability to gain greater control over specific functions of your own brain through the use of specially designed video games. Undergoing training with this technique can increase your executive attention, short term memory, and complex problem solving abilities. It is showing promising signs as a non-drug treatment for ADHD, and is helping athletes, musicians and artists develop their techniques by strengthening activity in the brain areas associated with them. It is also showing promising signs as a treatment for certain kinds of epilepsy, and even autism. But to talk about it in a meaningful way, we first have to look at its component parts, and the ideas it arose from.
Operant conditioning is a method of learning that is based on a very simple rule; over time, behaviours that are successful in a given situation will be repeated more than those that are unsuccessful. The success of an action in achieving a goal will reinforce the action, and over time it will become learned. As with another of the ideas we will look at, this was studied by doing pretty unfriendly things to cats. In 1901, American psychologist Edward Thorndike studied this idea in depth by trapping cats in boxes and watching them try to escape. After probably some time doing this, he discovered that a learning effect was occurring. Every time a cat figured out how to escape and was recaptured, it took less and less time for it to work out how to get back out. Successful behaviours were reinforced through positive reinforcement of the sweet smell of freedom, and were more easily performed by the cat each time. This method of learning is at the heart of all self-directed learning, and also of the next subject we need to approach.
Biofeedback is a method of training yourself to control bodily functions that are usually automatic, and is the basis of Neurofeedback. The idea is, using operant conditioning, a person can train themselves to gain control of physiological functions like heart-rate, skin temperature, sweating, even blood vessel dilation. This may seem a bit unnecessary; why would you want to control your heart rate, it’s doing just fine on it’s own? In archery, it is ideal to time your shots between your heartbeats, as the tiny pulses sent through your body with every beat can throw your aim off by significant amounts. Archers therefore have a very good reason to want to control this, and some have famously used biofeedback to learn to slow their heart rate at will (there are examples of this on YouTube). The method for learning to do this is very simple. A measuring device for whatever function you want to control (in this case heart rate) is connected to a simple on/off device (for instance a light bulb) so that when heart rate falls into the ideal range, the light bulb turns on. But when the rate moves out of this range again, the light turns off. The positive reinforcement of the light creates the learning effect that develops your control, so while you may not know how you’re doing it, by simply trying to turn the light on you can change your heart rate. And the really amazing thing about this technique is that after a while, you can control the function on your own, without the presence of the reinforcement (light bulb).
There is one last thing that bridges the gap between Biofeedback and Neurofeedback that is confusing enough to warrant explanation here. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a method of inferring brain activity by measuring electrical activity on the scalp. While it doesn’t tell us exactly what is going on (no technology really can), it can measure changes in activity in different parts of the brain. This gives us a great starting point for looking at what’s going on in different parts of the brain at any given moment. Coupled with our knowledge of which parts (or combination of parts) of the brain are associated with different physiological functions, means that we have a way to measure different kinds of brain activity in a similar way that a heart rate monitor measures heart rate. This means we can use it with biofeedback! And in doing so, we get...
This technique was stumbled upon in 1965 by Barry Sterman, another American psychologist, again in studies involving cats. Sterman was conducting conditioning experiments on cats where he was measuring their brain activity while they were performing a ‘push the lever, get a treat’ type experiment, and discovered that he could condition the cats to get a treat by producing a certain quality of brain activity (increased sensorimotor rhythm). Essentially, the cats would enter a unique state of focused alertness for a short period, and THAT would trigger the treat. This is pretty amazing in itself, but the really interesting thing happened later in another study, where things unfortunately took a dark turn for the cats. Sterman was asked by NASA to test the toxicity of a new rocket fuel they were trying out, so out came the cats again. 50 cats were injected with the horrible stuff, and most of them went into grand mal seizures. But 10 of them didn’t. Sterman was surprised by this, and looked for an explanation. It turns out, the 10 unaffected cats (and only those 10) were from his previous biofeedback study. Sterman deduced that the biofeedback exercise had lasting effects on the cats’ brain function, which resulted in a heightened tolerance to seizures. This was a very important discovery. Raising tolerance to seizures without drugs has enormous implications for epilepsy sufferers, and on a less urgent level, for all other people who don’t enjoy seizures. Since then, Neurofeedback has been shown to treat epilepsy, ADHD, and many other clinical disorders. It has also been shown to significantly improve focus in sport and music performance.
The method is quite similar to the Biofeedback method above, using EEG signal to trigger a positive reinforcement whenever the ideal brainwave frequencies are achieved. Though instead of a simple reinforcer, you are asked to play a video game with your mind. Though the game is usually fairly simple; controlling the size of coloured blocks or steering a race car down a track, they add a whole new dimension of engagement and motivation to the process. The game is set up to respond to your brain activity, so when you produce the right quality of brain activity, you get points in the game, etc. As with biofeedback, this produces lasting effects in the user, improving their overall attention and focus in all other areas of life. Those who were lucky enough to take part in Harley Macnamara’s PhD research recently got to experience this first hand. Harley is asking questions in this field that no one has asked before, breaking new ground in the field. As things stand, we know that NFT (Neurofeedback Training) works, but not much is known about how. Harley’s work is trying to determine some key things in this direction; trying to determine if NFT is really doing what we think it’s doing, and if so, how do we measure it? He is doing this in part by exploring the effects of training one hemisphere of the brain independently of the other, something that has never been done before. As well as this, Harley is looking at the changes that occur in the everyday life of people undergoing NFT, trying to measure how people experience changes in their attention levels.
Neurofeedback is still a very young field, and a lot of questions still need to be answered before it’s effects are fully understood, but the possibilities are truly astounding. This is definitely something to keep an eye on over coming years.
- Stu Horsfield