Ever wish you could get inside someone’s head? Scientists have been working on that for years, and it’s been getting some extra attention lately.
In a therapeutic process known as neurofeedback, researchers can plant feelings that didn’t previously exist into the minds of participants, using it to treat various mental disorders, from insomnia to migraines to ADD, to name a few.
What Is Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback, also known as biofeedback or neurotherapy, is a process that enables people to alter their own brainwaves. Scientists at Brown University recently used the process to manipulate the emotions of participants, resulting in their development of either positive or negative feelings toward photographs which had elicited no emotional response just days prior.
While this may sound an awful lot like mind control, it’s more scientific than science fiction. Measuring brain activity in real-time, the process relies on reinforcement to teach participants to regulate their own brainwave patterns, in an event referred to as “self-regulation.”
Despite researchers manning the controls, the participants surveyed generated these new feelings entirely on their own, making this relatively new technique more like brain-training than brainwashing.
How Does Neurofeedback Work?
In one particular study, released in peer-reviewed medical journal PLOS Biology, researchers asked 24 participants to view a series of photographed faces, and then to rate the photographs as either very negative, neutral, or very positive. While subjects made their assessments, researchers measured their neural activity patterns with fMRI brain scans so that they could “pair” specific brain waves with particular ratings.
The neurofeedback aspect of the study would begin at this point, in a five-stage experiment designed to “plant emotions” in the heads of research subjects. Each participant would play a game that involved a brain scanner, rated photographs and a floating disc.
With participants lying inside a brain scanner, researchers would show subjects a neutral-rated photo once again. A floating disc would then appear, and researchers would ask subjects to use only their mind to make the disc larger. If they could do so, they would win a cash prize.
Of course, none of the participants knew how to do that, but unbeknownst to them, they didn’t actually have to: The disc actually read the brain activity of each participant, and if any of the subject’s passing thoughts resembled the rating associated with their very negative or very positive assessment of the earlier photographs, the disc would grow and the subject would earn money. Researchers would repeat this process over and over.
In a later stage of the experiment, all test participants, plus a new control group of subjects who had not played the disc game, rated the neutral faces again. This time, those who had received the neurofeedback treatment rated those same neutral faces as either slightly more negative or positive than before.
A Change In How We Treat Mental Illness?
In a nutshell, neurofeedback revealed to researchers that there is a single region of the brain where positive and negative feelings form — and that these feelings can be “shaped” through reinforcement techniques.
Just as importantly, the research showed that through neurofeedback programs, subjects can unwittingly change their own brain activity and “wire in” emotions that had not previously appeared — a result which could spell big changes in the way physicians identify and treat mental health-related illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We thought that if our technique could change facial preference, we would be able to change many other functions, particularly those related to causes of mental diseases,” co-author Takeo Watanabe said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
By witnessing and monitoring a person’s brain activity as various thoughts and feelings arise and disappear, researchers hope to use the technique to help patients learn now to manipulate their own brain activity patterns as a means of dealing with extreme stress without relying on the use of prescription medication.
For those concerned about the U.S.’ apparent addiction to prescription drugs, these kinds of treatments offer a beacon of hope. Indeed, from just 2010 to 2010, Medco noted in a report that the number of Americans on medications used to treat psychological and behavioral disorders has increased by 22 percent, with over one-in-five adults on at least one of these drugs in 2010.
“If someone develops a traumatic memory that makes him or her suffer, even a small reduction of the suffering would be helpful,” Watanabe stated in a press release.
Next, learn how therapy animals may also work better than anti-depressants.