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My Virtual Dream: Crowdsourcing Brain Data

Overnight experiment creates social brain lab, yields new insights about ‘speed of learning’ changes in the brain.

Neuroscientists in Toronto have shown that crowdsourcing brain data with hundreds of adults in a short period of time could be a new frontier in neuroscience and lead to new insights about the brain.

Dr. Natasha Kovacevic of Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute is the lead author of a scientific paper on the crowdsourcing experiment – “My Virtual Dream: Collective Neurofeedback in an Immersive Art Environment” – published online today in the journal PLOS ONE.

More than 500 adults aged 18 and older participated in the experiment at the 2013 Scotiabank Nuit Blanche arts event in Toronto. Baycrest, in partnership with the University of Toronto and industry partners, created a large-scale art-science installation called My Virtual Dream. Festival-goers were invited to wear a Muse™ wireless electroencephalography (EEG) headband and participate in a brief collective neurofeedback experience in groups of 20 inside a 60-foot geodesic dome. The group’s collective EEG signals triggered a specific catalogue of artistic imagery displayed on the dome’s 360-degree interior, along with spontaneous musical interpretation by live musicians on stage.

The installation was one of the most popular at Nuit Blanche, with an average lineup wait time of two hours.

Studying brains in a social and multi-sensory environment is closer to real life and may help scientists to approach questions of complex real-life social cognition that otherwise are not accessible in traditional labs that study one person’s cognitive functions at a time.

“In traditional lab settings, the environment is so controlled that you can lose some of the fine points of real-time brain activity that occur in a social life setting,” said Dr. Kovacevic, creative producer of My Virtual Dream and program manager of the Centre for Integrative Brain Dynamics at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.

“What we’ve done is taken the lab to the public. We collaborated with multi-media artists, made this experiment incredibly engaging, attracted highly motivated subjects which is not easy to do in the traditional lab setting, and collected useful scientific data from their experience.”

Results from the experiment not only demonstrated the scientific viability of collective neurofeedback as a potential new avenue of neuroscience research that takes into account individuality, complexity and sociability of the human mind, but yielded new evidence that neurofeedback learning can have an effect on the brain almost immediately.

Neurofeedback learning supports mindful awareness and joins a growing market for wearable biofeedback devices. The device used in this study, Muse™, is a clinical-grade EEG brain computer interface (BCI) headband that helps individuals to be more aware of their brain states (relaxed versus focused versus distracted) and learn self-regulation of brain function to fit their personal goals.

A total of 523 adults (209 males, 314 females), ranging in age from 18 to 89, with an average age of 31, contributed their EEG brain data for the study. Each session involved 20 participants being seated in a semicircle in front of a stage and divided into four groups (“pods”) of five. They played a collective neurofeedback computer game where they were required to manipulate their mental states of relaxation and concentration. The neurofeedback training lasted 6.5 minutes, which is much shorter than typical neurofeedback training experiments.

This image shows a person looking at a computer screen while participating in the study.

A study participant manipulates his mental states of relaxation and concentration as part of a collective neurofeedback experiment conducted with 523 adults at the 2013 Scotiabank Nuit Blanche arts festival in Toronto. Image credit: Kelly Connelly / Baycrest Health Sciences.

The massive amount of EEG data collected in one night yielded an interesting and statistically relevant finding – that subtle brain activity changes were taking place within approximately one minute of the neurofeedback learning exercise – unprecedented speed of learning changes that have not been demonstrated before.

“These results really open up a whole new domain of neuroscience study that actively engages the public to advance our understanding of the brain,” said Dr. Randy McIntosh, director of the Rotman Research Institute and vice-president of Research at Baycrest. He is a senior author on the paper.

The idea for the Nuit Blanche art -science experiment was inspired by Baycrest’s ongoing international project to build the world’s first functional, virtual brain – a research and diagnostic tool that could one day revolutionize brain healthcare.

Baycrest cognitive neuroscientists collaborated with artists and gaming and wearable technology industry partners for over a year to create the My Virtual Dream installation. Partners included the University of Toronto, Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, Muse™ and Uken Games.

Plans are underway to travel My Virtual Dream to other cities around the world.

About this neuroscience and crowdsourcing research

Funding: Funding for the study was provided by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the Max and Gianna Glassman Foundation.

Source: Kelly Connelly – Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care
Image Credit: Image is credited to Kelly Connelly / Baycrest Health Sciences
Original Research: Full open access research for “My Virtual Dream: Collective Neurofeedback in an Immersive Art Environment” by Natasha Kovacevic, Petra Ritter, William Tays, Sylvain Moreno, and Anthony Randal McIntosh in PLOS ONE. Published online July 8 2015 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0130129


Abstract

My Virtual Dream: Collective Neurofeedback in an Immersive Art Environment

While human brains are specialized for complex and variable real world tasks, most neuroscience studies reduce environmental complexity, which limits the range of behaviours that can be explored. Motivated to overcome this limitation, we conducted a large-scale experiment with electroencephalography (EEG) based brain-computer interface (BCI) technology as part of an immersive multi-media science-art installation. Data from 523 participants were collected in a single night. The exploratory experiment was designed as a collective computer game where players manipulated mental states of relaxation and concentration with neurofeedback targeting modulation of relative spectral power in alpha and beta frequency ranges. Besides validating robust time-of-night effects, gender differences and distinct spectral power patterns for the two mental states, our results also show differences in neurofeedback learning outcome. The unusually large sample size allowed us to detect unprecedented speed of learning changes in the power spectrum (~ 1 min). Moreover, we found that participants’ baseline brain activity predicted subsequent neurofeedback beta training, indicating state-dependent learning. Besides revealing these training effects, which are relevant for BCI applications, our results validate a novel platform engaging art and science and fostering the understanding of brains under natural conditions.

“My Virtual Dream: Collective Neurofeedback in an Immersive Art Environment” by Natasha Kovacevic, Petra Ritter, William Tays, Sylvain Moreno, and Anthony Randal McIntosh in PLOS ONE. Published online July 8 2015 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0130129

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