While it might seem like something out of a sci-fi movie, researchers in Toronto conducted brain research by using a high tech headband that can collect and record EEG signals from the wearer’s brain. It’s not that unusual to use EEG data in brain studies but the method of this study was definitely different.
Combining the concept of crowdsourcing and EEG headband technology, lead researcher Dr. Natasha Kovacevic of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto conducted the study with hundreds of participants. Brain data was collected while the audience took part in a large scale art and science installation called My Virtual Dream. Dr. Kovacevic published a paper on her findings entitled “My Virtual Dream: Collective Neurofeedback in an Immersive Art Environment”
The study included more than 500 participants, all over the age of 18. Wearing Muse brand wireless EEG headbands while being a part of a what is called a “collective neurofeedback experience
” the subjects were engaged in a computer game where their mental states changed the music and video displays that were playing.
Study participants were led into a geodesic dome in groups of 20. The EEG signals from the Muse headbands were collected and then grouped together to trigger specific imagery and music in the dome. Since most brain and cognitive experiments take place in a lab and measure the reactions and behavior of one person at a time, this collective use of brain signals from a crowd of participants was the first of its kind.
In a press release
, Dr. Kovacevic said, “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. 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.”
In addition to being the program manager of the Centre for Integrative Brain Dynamics at the Rotman Research Institute, Dr. Kovacevic also produced My Virtual Dream and was responsible for the creative and artistic content.
The environment of the My Virtual Dream event was closer to real life than most laboratory studies. The results of this art/science combination showed that gathering data collectively, even data as complex as neurofeedback, can be a viable direction in neuroscience research. The amount of sensory input coupled with the social environment showed that brain studies can capture complex reactions and it also demonstrated that the brain can learn things almost immediately when provided with certain neurofeedback information.
The device that Dr. Kovacevic chose for the study is not just a high-tech toy but rather an EEG brain computer interface headband that allows the wearer to be cognizant of their brain state, and use that awareness to regulate their actions. In the experiment, participants played a computer game that required them to purposely be either mentally relaxed or focused on the details of the game happening on a screen. The data collected during the game showed that within one minute of a training exercise that was part of the game, the participant’s brain activity showed changes that indicated they had learned something and were adjusting their mental state accordingly.
The Rotman Research Institute hopes to be able to take the My Virtual Dream installation on tour to other cities and collect more data. See the video below to learn more about the project.