Technology 3 min read

Manipulating the Alpha Brain Waves to Boost Attention

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agsandrew /

According to MIT neuroscientists, turning down your alpha brain waves can help enhance attention.

Millions of neuron create electrical signals, which in turn, generates oscillations known as brain waves. Neuroscientists categorize these brain waves based on their oscillating frequencies.

For example, alpha waves oscillate between 8 to 12 hertz and reportedly play a role in filtering out distracting sensory information. In fact, previous studies found a strong correlation between attention and alpha waves.

In human and animal studies, scientists found a link between decreased alpha waves and enhanced attention. However, researchers have never been able to establish whether alpha waves control attention or if it’s just a byproduct of another process that controls attention.

So, the scientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research decided to conduct a study.

Finding the Link Between Alpha Brain Waves and Attention

The researchers wanted to test whether alpha brain waves regulate attention. So, they designed an experiment in which participants received real-time feedback on their alpha waves while performing a task.

The scientists asked the participants to look at a grating pattern in the middle of a screen. The respondents were also supposed to increase the contrast of the pattern using mental effort only.

During this task, the MIT team scanned the participants using magnetoencephalography (MEG). It’s a neuroimaging technique that reveals brain activity with millisecond precision.

The researchers recorded the alpha levels in both hemispheres of the parietal cortex. Then, they calculated the degree of asymmetry between the two levels.

Findings revealed that as the asymmetry between the left and right hemisphere grew, so did the visibility of the grating pattern in real-time.

Although the participants didn’t know what was happening, they managed to increase the contrast of the pattern after 20 trials. According to the MEG result, they had done so by controlling the asymmetry of the alpha waves.

Lead author of the study, Yasaman Bagherzadeh noted:

“After the experiment, the subjects said they knew that they were controlling the contrast, but they didn’t know how they did it.”

So, how did they do it?

How to Control Your Alpha Brain Waves

According to the researchers, the participants may have used conditional learning to control the alpha waves.

Whenever you perform an action and receive a reward for that action, you’re reinforcing that behavior. By providing real-time feedback for brain activities, the researchers had rewarded the participants for learning to manipulate their alpha waves.

With that said, the participants were not consciously aware that they were controlling their brain waves. But since they were able to, it enhanced their attention on the opposite side of the visual field.

What’s more, the effect persisted. The participants still had enhanced attention after the neurofeedback session was over.

“It would be interesting to understand how long-lasting these effects are, and whether you can use them therapeutically,”  says Sabine Kastner, a professor of psychology at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, who was not involved in the research.

Read More: Researchers to use Brainwaves and Hand Gestures to Control Robots

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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