Novel Neurofeedback Technique Enhances Awareness of Mind-Wandering

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Summary: Researchers have developed a novel neurofeedback technique based on Pavlovian conditioning that detects when a person’s mind is wandering.

Source: ATR Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory Group

Everyone knows the feeling. You are trying to concentrate on driving or studying, or paying attention in a boring meeting, but suddenly you realize that you are thinking about something irrelevant to the task at hand.

While mind-wandering is sometimes associated with mental problems such as depression, it also contributes to our creativity. Therefore, what we need is not to avoid mind-wandering, but to learn how to manage it.

The first step to control mind-wandering is to realize that it is occurring. Once we notice it, we are free to stop or to continue it. At ATR, we developed the first method, a neurofeedback technique, to enhance awareness of mind-wandering.

We performed a double-blinded test with 36 participants and demonstrated that awareness of mind-wandering was significantly enhanced after 20 minutes of neurofeedback. Participants were assigned by computer to control and experimental groups and those assignments were withheld from experimenters.

During neurofeedback, artificial intelligence was used to identify mind-wandering of participants performing a task that requires concentration.

In the control group, soft tones were presented at irregular intervals. In the experimental group, those tones were sounded when neurofeedback detected that a participant’s mind was wandering.

However, until debriefing at the end of the experiment, participants in both groups were told that tones were meaningless and were instructed to ignore them.

Since people become aware that their minds are wandering at the time their attention is re-directed back to the external environment, we hypothesized that this novel neurofeedback creates a state in which participants become cognizant of mind-wandering whenever it occurs.

This study had two unique features. First, participants in the experimental group did not know that they had received neurofeedback and they didn’t realize that their awareness of mind-wandering had been enhanced. Second, in conventional neurofeedback, participants obtain rewards when they control their brains well.

In contrast, our neurofeedback employed no rewards or punishments. Instead, it was based on traditional (Pavlovian) conditioning.

This study did not reveal how long effects of this neurofeedback persist, but probably they will not last long. However, future studies will examine whether repeated neurofeedback endures in daily life, and we will also explore training techniques to improve mood and mental problems and to enhance creativity.

Everyone knows the feeling. You are trying to concentrate on driving or studying, or paying attention in a boring meeting, but suddenly you realize that you are thinking about something irrelevant to the task at hand.

While mind-wandering is sometimes associated with mental problems such as depression, it also contributes to our creativity. Therefore, what we need is not to avoid mind-wandering, but to learn how to manage it.

The first step to control mind-wandering is to realize that it is occurring. Once we notice it, we are free to stop or to continue it. At ATR, we developed the first method, a neurofeedback technique, to enhance awareness of mind-wandering.

We performed a double-blinded test with 36 participants and demonstrated that awareness of mind-wandering was significantly enhanced after 20 minutes of neurofeedback. Participants were assigned by computer to control and experimental groups and those assignments were withheld from experimenters.

During neurofeedback, artificial intelligence was used to identify mind-wandering of participants performing a task that requires concentration.

In the control group, soft tones were presented at irregular intervals. In the experimental group, those tones were sounded when neurofeedback detected that a participant’s mind was wandering.

However, until debriefing at the end of the experiment, participants in both groups were told that tones were meaningless and were instructed to ignore them.

This shows a brain
The first step to control mind-wandering is to realize that it is occurring. Image is in the public domain

Since people become aware that their minds are wandering at the time their attention is re-directed back to the external environment, we hypothesized that this novel neurofeedback creates a state in which participants become cognizant of mind-wandering whenever it occurs.

This study had two unique features. First, participants in the experimental group did not know that they had received neurofeedback and they didn’t realize that their awareness of mind-wandering had been enhanced. Second, in conventional neurofeedback, participants obtain rewards when they control their brains well.

In contrast, our neurofeedback employed no rewards or punishments. Instead, it was based on traditional (Pavlovian) conditioning.

This study did not reveal how long effects of this neurofeedback persist, but probably they will not last long. However, future studies will examine whether repeated neurofeedback endures in daily life, and we will also explore training techniques to improve mood and mental problems and to enhance creativity.

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About this neurotech research news

Author: Ritsuko Mashimo
Source: ATR Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory Group
Contact: Ritsuko Mashimo – ATR Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory Group
Picture: The image is in the public domain

OriginalResearch: Open access.
Pavlovian-based neurofeedback enhances meta-awareness of mind-wandering” by Issaku Kawashima et al. Neural Networks


Abstract

Pavlovian-based neurofeedback enhances meta-awareness of mind-wandering

Absorption in mind-wandering (WM) may worsen our mood and can cause psychological disorders. Researchers indicate the possibility that meta-awareness of WM prevents these mal-effects and enhances favorable consequences of WM, such as boosting creativity; thus, meta-awareness has attracted psychological and clinical attention.

However, few studies have investigated the nature of meta-awareness of MW, because there has been no method to isolate and operate this ability. Therefore, we propose a new approach to manipulate the ability of meta-awareness.

We used Pavlovian conditioning, tying to it an occurrence of MW and a neutral tone sound inducing the meta-awareness of MW.

To perform paired presentations of the unconditioned stimulus (neutral tone) and the conditioned stimulus (perception accompanying WM), we detected participants’ natural occurrence of WM via electroencephalogram and a machine-learning estimation method.

The double-blinded randomized controlled trial with 37 participants found that a single 20-min conditioning session significantly increased the meta-awareness of WM as assessed by behavioral and neuroscientific measures.

The core protocol of the proposed method is real-time feedback on participants’ neural information, and in that sense, we can refer to it as neurofeedback.

However, there are some differences from typical neurofeedback protocols, and we discuss them in this paper. Our novel classical conditioning is expected to contribute to future research on the modulation effect of meta-awareness on MW.

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