Learning to modulate one’s own brain activity: the effect of spontaneous mental strategies

At a time where buzzwords such as audio-visual entrainment, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), electroencephalography (EEG) or hemoencephalography (HEG) permeate our media culture (Okay, “brain exercise” at least), short of attaining a postgraduate degree in neurophysiology or imaging, it can prove quite the challenge to sort through the data and Facebook advertising – and I hear it’s no cake walk even then. With companies here and abroad making the grandiose promise “Change your brain, change your life – with a few simple sessions!” for hundreds  or thousands of dollars, we need to begin realizing our task cannot simply entail questions of which method or provider to go with, but to understand what they are as well. I’m not convinced everyone is approaching these treatments with quite enough healthy skepticism. Sure…you’re not going under the knife, but come on…you do realize in some of these they’re hooking wires up to your brain…right?
This ideal works on both ends, however. Take neurofeedback, for example. Due to the many unfortunate claims of finding the “cure” to autism or ADHD, (and somewhat failing to date), treatments like neurofeedback have from time to time been given somewhat of a bad rap. And why would it not? The pharmaceutical industry has little to gain from the moment the right person publishes the right study showing just how beneficial and life-changing (for some) these treatments really can be. Without delving too deeply just yet, here is a recent study I came across in regard to the process of learning to control one’s own brain activity. While it is essential to view everything with a skeptical eye, I have of late heard too many first-hand accounts of what neurofeedback  has done to revolutionize the lives of the afflicted to stop at a setback largely at the fault of needy headlines and faulty business marketing. Necessitated by the how of neuroscience and why of psychology, I plan on making no small task of digging deeper in the near future.

Learning to modulate one’s own brain activity: the effect of spontaneous mental strategies


Using neurofeedback (NF), individuals can learn to modulate their own brain activity, in most cases electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythms. Although a large body of literature reports positive effects of NF training on behavior and cognitive functions, there are hardly any reports on how participants can successfully learn to gain control over their own brain activity. About one third of people fail to gain significant control over their brain signals even after repeated training sessions. The reasons for this failure are still largely unknown. In this context, we investigated the effects of spontaneous mental strategies on NF performance. Twenty healthy participants performed either a SMR (sensorimotor rhythm, 12-15 Hz) based or a Gamma (40-43 Hz) based NF training over ten sessions. After the first and the last training session, they were asked to write down which mental strategy they have used for self-regulating their EEG. After the first session, all participants reported the use of various types of mental strategies such as visual strategies, concentration, or relaxation. After the last NF training session, four participants of the SMR group reported to employ no specific strategy. These four participants showed linear improvements in NF performance over the ten training sessions. In contrast, participants still reporting the use of specific mental strategies in the last NF session showed no changes in SMR based NF performance over the ten sessions. This effect could not be observed in the Gamma group. The Gamma group showed no prominent changes in Gamma power over the NF training sessions, regardless of the mental strategies used. These results indicate that successful SMR based NF performance is associated with implicit learning mechanisms. Participants stating vivid reports on strategies to control their SMR probably overload cognitive resources, which might be counterproductive in terms of increasing SMR power.

(Taken from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, open access). The complete study may be found here.

Learning to modulate one’s own brain activity: the effect of spontaneous mental strategies 
Silvia E. Kober, Matthias Witte, Manuel Ninaus, Christa Neuper, Guilherme Wood
Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 7: 695. Published online 2013 October 18. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00695 PMCID: PMC3798979

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