Neurofeedback Gets You Back In the Zone

Summary: Neurofeedback can be used to modify a person’s state of arousal in order to improve performance in sensory motor tasks, biomedical engineers report.

Source: Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

Our state of arousal–being fearful, agitated, or calm–can significantly affect our ability to make optimal decisions, judgments, and actions in real-world dynamic environments. Imagine, for instance, walking across a balance beam. Your performance–speed across the beam and the odds of making it across without falling off–are dramatically better if the beam sits a mere six inches off the ground and you are relaxed rather than terror-stricken on a beam 60 feet higher. To keep you in the zone of maximum performance, your arousal needs to be at moderate levels, not so high that it pushes you over the edge.

Biomedical engineers at Columbia Engineering have shown–for the first time–that they can use online neurofeedback to modify an individual’s arousal state to improve performance in a demanding sensory motor task, such as flying a plane or driving in suboptimal conditions. The researchers used a brain computer interface (BCI) to monitor, through electroencephalography (EEG) in real time, the arousal states of the study participants when they were engaged in a virtual reality aerial navigation task. The system generated a neurofeedback signal that helped participants to decrease their arousal in particularly difficult flight situations, which in turn improved participants’ performance. The study was published today by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The whole question of how you can get into the zone, whether you’re a baseball hitter or a stock trader or a fighter pilot, has always been an intriguing one,” says Paul Sajda, professor of biomedical engineering (BME), electrical engineering, and radiology, who led the study. “Our work shows that we can use feedback generated from our own brain activity to shift our arousal state in ways that significantly improve our performance in difficult tasks–so we can hit that home run or land on a carrier deck without crashing.”

The 20 subjects in the study were immersed in a virtual reality scenario in which they had to navigate a simulated airplane through rectangular boundaries. Known as a boundary avoidance task, this demanding sensory-motor task model created cognitive stresses, such as making the boxes narrower every 30 seconds, that escalated arousal and quickly resulted in task failure–missing or crashing into the boundary. But when the researchers used neurofeedback, the subjects did better, were able to fly longer while performing the difficult tasks that required high levels of visual and motor coordination.

a person using neurofeedback while monitored by EEG.

The flight scenario was presented using a head mounted display to create an even more immersive 3D experience of the task. In addition to electrical measures of brain activity from an electroencephalography (EEG) cap, we also recorded other physiological signals like electrodermal activity from the left hand of participants. The image is credited to Josef Faller/Columbia Engineering.

There were three feedback conditions (BCI, sham, and silence) randomly assigned for every new flight attempt. In the BCI condition, subjects heard the sound of a low-rate synthetic heartbeat that was continuously modulated in loudness as a function of the level of inferred task-dependent arousal, as decoded from the EEG. The higher that level of arousal, the louder the feedback and vice versa. Participants’ task performance in the BCI condition, measured as time and distance over which the subject can navigate before failure, was increased by around 20 percent.

“Simultaneous measurements of pupil dilation and heart rate variability showed that the neurofeedback indeed reduced arousal, causing the subjects to remain calm and fly beyond the point at which they would normally fail,” says Josef Faller, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research scientist in BME. “Our work is the first demonstration of a BCI system that uses online neurofeedback to shift arousal state and improve task performance in accordance with the Yerkes-Dodson law.”

a diagram of how bci can improve performance

Study participants navigated a virtual plane up and down through a course of red boxes while we recorded their electrical brain activity from an electroencephalography (EEG) cap (see top panel). The participants became more and more agitated as the course also became more and more difficult over time which lead most participants to miss one of the boxes (i.e. crashed the plane) in the middle of the course (see Control, bottom panel). When we provided a brain-computer interface (BCI) based neurofeedback signal that reflected their level of stress or arousal, participants were able to decrease their arousal level, which in term improved their task performance. The image is credited to Josef Faller/Columbia Engineering.

The Yerkes-Dodson law is a well-established and intensively studied law in behavioral psychology about the relationship between arousal and performance. Developed in 1908, it posits an inverse-relationship between arousal and task performance, that there is a state of arousal that is optimal for behavioral performance in a given task. In this new study, the researchers showed that they could use neurofeedback in real time to move an individual’s arousal from the right side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve to the left, toward a state of improved performance.


Co-author Jennifer Cummings provides a brief summary of background, motivation, setup and results for the study “BCI Based Regulation of Arousal Improves Human Performance in a Demanding Sensory Motor Task.” The video also shows how a participant actually performs the flight task as well as the most important findings. Credit Columbia Engineering.

“What’s exciting about our new approach is that it is applicable to different task domains,” Sajda adds. “This includes clinical applications that use self-regulation as a targeted treatment, such as mental illness.”

The researchers are now studying how neurofeedback can be used to regulate arousal and emotion for clinical conditions such as PTSD. They are also exploring how they might use online monitoring of arousal and cognitive control to inform human-agent teaming, when a robot and a human work together in a high-stress situation like a rescue. If the robot has information on the human’s arousal state, it could choose its tasks in a way that reduces its teammate’s arousal, pushing her/him into an ideal performance zone.

“Good human-agent teams, like the Navy SEALS, do this already, but that is because the human-agents can read facial expressions, voice patterns, etc., of their teammates to infer arousal and stress levels,” Sajda says. “We envision our system being a better way to communicate not just this type of information, but much more to a robot-agent.”

About the Study:

Authors are: Josef Faller, Jennifer Cummings, Sameer Saproo, and Paul Sajda, Columbia Engineering.

The work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Army Research Office (ARO) under grant number W911NF-11-1- 0219, the Army Research Laboratory under Cooperative agreement number W911NF-10-2-0022, the National Science Foundation under grant IIS-1527747 and the UK Economic and Social Research Council under grant number ES/L012995/1.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
Media Contacts:
Holly Evarts – Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
Image Source:
The images are credited to Josef Faller/Columbia Engineering.

Original Research:
“Regulation of arousal via online neurofeedback improves human performance in a demanding sensory-motor task”
Josef Faller, Jennifer Cummings, Sameer Saproo, Paul Sajda.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2019, 201817207
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1817207116

Abstract

Regulation of arousal via online neurofeedback improves human performance in a demanding sensory-motor task

Our state of arousal can significantly affect our ability to make optimal decisions, judgments, and actions in real-world dynamic environments. The Yerkes–Dodson law, which posits an inverse-U relationship between arousal and task performance, suggests that there is a state of arousal that is optimal for behavioral performance in a given task. Here we show that we can use online neurofeedback to shift an individual’s arousal from the right side of the Yerkes–Dodson curve to the left toward a state of improved performance. Specifically, we use a brain–computer interface (BCI) that uses information in the EEG to generate a neurofeedback signal that dynamically adjusts an individual’s arousal state when they are engaged in a boundary-avoidance task (BAT). The BAT is a demanding sensory-motor task paradigm that we implement as an aerial navigation task in virtual reality and which creates cognitive conditions that escalate arousal and quickly results in task failure (e.g., missing or crashing into the boundary). We demonstrate that task performance, measured as time and distance over which the subject can navigate before failure, is significantly increased when veridical neurofeedback is provided. Simultaneous measurements of pupil dilation and heart-rate variability show that the neurofeedback indeed reduces arousal. Our work demonstrates a BCI system that uses online neurofeedback to shift arousal state and increase task performance in accordance with the Yerkes–Dodson law.

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