Summary: Scanning one’s brain wave circuitry before engaging in a learning task can greatly improve the rate at which cognitive skills improve.

Source: University of Cambridge

Scientists have shown for the first time that briefly adjusting a person’s brainwave cycle before engaging in a learning task can dramatically increase the rate at which cognitive skills improve.

Adjusting the rate of information delivery to match our brain’s natural timing increases our ability to absorb and adapt to new information, according to the team behind the study.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge say these techniques can help us acquire “neuroplasticity” early in life and promote lifelong learning.

The study’s senior author, Professor Zoe Kurtzi, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, said: “Each brain has its own natural rhythm, created by the oscillations of neurons. “We mimic these changes so that the brain adapts to itself – and is in the best position to grow.”

“The plasticity of our brains is the ability to continuously restructure and learn new things based on previous neural connections. Using brainwave rhythms, it may be possible to promote dynamic learning from infancy to adulthood, Kurtzy said.

The findings are published in the journal The front part of the brainIt will be explored as part of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Personal Awareness: a research collaboration between Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Neuroscientists used head-mounted electroencephalography — or EEG — sensors and sampled brain wave rhythms to measure electrical activity in the brains of 80 study participants.

The team took readings of alpha waves. The middle region of the brain wave spectrum, this wave frequency dominates when we are awake and relaxed.

Alpha waves cycle between eight and twelve hertz: a complete cycle every 85-125 milliseconds. However, each person has their own highest alpha frequency in that range.

Scientists used these readings to create an optical “pulse”: a white square flashed on a dark background at the same time as each person’s alpha wave.

Participants received a 1.5-second personalized pulse to get their brains to work naturally—a technique called “entrainment”—before being presented with a rapid-fire cognitive task: trying to identify specific shapes in visually cluttered blocks. .

The brain wave cycle consists of a peak and a trough. Some participants experienced rhythms that corresponded to the peaks of their waves, some troughs, and some random or erratic (slightly fast or slow) rhythms. Each participant repeats more than 800 cognitive tasks, and neuroscientists measure how quickly people improve.

The learning rate of those locked into the correct rhythm was at least three times faster than that of the other groups. When participants returned the next day to complete another round of tasks, those who learned the fastest during training maintained their highest level of performance.

“It was interesting to find out what specific conditions you need to get this amazing learning boost,” said first author Dr Elizabeth Michaels, who is now at Cambridge’s Department of Cognition and Brain Sciences.

“The intervention itself is very simple, a brief flash on the screen, but when we hit the right frequency and the right phase alignment, it seems to have a strong and lasting effect.”

Importantly, the entrainment pulses must resonate with the brain wave pool. Scientists believe that this point in the cycle is when the neurons are in “high sensitivity”.

Professor Victoria Leong, from NTU and Cambridge’s Department of Paediatrics, said: “It feels like we’re constantly watching the world, but our brain takes quick snapshots and then our neurons communicate with each other.” .

“Our hypothesis is that by matching the availability of information with a better brain wave level, we will increase information capture because at this time our neurons are in a state of great excitement.”

Previous work from Leong Baby-Linsey’s lab has shown that the brain waves of mothers and infants are synchronized when they communicate. Leong believes the method in this latest study is so effective because it mirrors the way infants learn.

“We’re testing a mechanism that allows our brains to adapt to temporal stimuli in our environment, particularly communication signals such as speech, gaze, and gestures that change during parent-child interactions,” Leong said.

This shows a person in an EEG cap
A brainwave experiment in the Adaptive Brain Lab led by Professor Zoe Kurtzy in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. Credit: University of Cambridge

“When adults talk to young children, they use child-directed speech—a slow, exaggerated form of speech. This research suggests that child-directed speech may be a spontaneous way to stimulate children’s brain waves to support learning.”

According to the researchers, although the new study examines visual perception, these methods may be “domain general”: applicable to a variety of tasks and situations, including auditory.

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Potential applications for brainwave stimulation may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but they argue that they are increasingly within reach. “While our research used complex EEG machines, there are now simple head-band systems that allow us to easily measure brain frequencies,” Kurtzy said.

“Kids now do a lot of what they learn in front of screens. For kids who struggle in regular classrooms, perhaps due to attention deficits, one can imagine using brainwave rhythms to improve classrooms.”

Other early applications of brainwave stimulation to augment learning may include training in occupations where rapid learning and quick decision-making are essential, such as pilots or surgeons. “Virtual reality simulations are now an effective part of training in many professions,” Kurtzy said.

“Implementation of brainwave-like pulses in these virtual environments could give new students a leg up or help them train later in life.”

So learning research news

Author: Fred Lewsey
Source: University of Cambridge
Contact: Fred Lewsey – University of Cambridge
Image: Image credited to Cambridge University.

Preliminary study: Open Access.
Learning at the Rhythm of Your Brain: Individual motivation increases learning to make informed decisions” by Zoe Kurtzy et al. The front part of the brain


Learning at the Rhythm of Your Brain: Individual motivation increases learning to make informed decisions

Training is known to improve our ability to make decisions when interacting in complex environments. However, individuals vary in their ability to learn new tasks and acquire new skills in different situations. Here, we test whether this variability in learning ability is related to individual brain oscillations.

We use visual flashes to educate individuals on their own brain rhythm (ie, high alpha frequency) as measured by resting-state electroencephalography (EEG). We show that this individual frequency-matched brain stimulation results in faster learning in a visual identification task (i.e., searching for targets in a cluttered background) compared to individual alpha frequency-unmatched entrainment.

Furthermore, we show that learning is conditioned by the phase relation between the flickering and the visual target stimulus. EEG shows during forelimbs increased individual alpha power, phase alignment in the pre-stimulus period, and shorter latencies of early visual stimuli, suggesting that brain stimulation facilitates anticipatory processing to support improved perceptual decisions.

These findings suggest that individual brain stimulation enhances perceptual learning by altering cognitive control mechanisms in the visual cortex, suggesting a key role for individual neuronal oscillatory states in learning and brain plasticity.

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