What if the company that just hired you could tell how quickly you’ll learn on the new job with a test of your brain waves? Kyle Mathewson, Beckman postdoctoral fellow, conducted a study with Beckman faculty members Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton that measured the brain waves of participants playing a video game over several sessions. What he found was that a person’s alpha brain waves—waves present in deep relaxation—could predict how quickly the participant learned the video game.
The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to peek at electrical activity in the brains of 39 study subjects before they trained on Space Fortress, a video game developed for cognitive research. The subjects whose brain waves oscillated most powerfully in the alpha spectrum (about 10 times per second, or 10 hertz) when measured at the front of the head (a region associated with decision-making, attention, and self-control) tended to go on to learn at a faster rate than those whose brain waves oscillated with less power, the researchers found. None of the subjects were daily video game players.
“From these findings, we can identify when people are fast learners, or when they need a little bit more time to learn,” Mathewson said. “To determine someone’s learning curve, you can give people a quick test to measure their alpha waves, maybe when they’re recruited to work in a new company or as a soldier. Their training regimen can be tailored to how their brain is wired for learning. Just like in medicine where there’s a push for personalized medicine, we could tailor training strategies to the individual if we know if an individual is a fast or a slow learner.”
The researchers also found that learning to play the game improved subjects’ reaction time and working memory (the ability to hold a piece of information in mind just until it is needed)—skills that are important in everyday life.
“We found that the people who had more alpha waves in response to certain aspects of the game ended up having the best improvement in reaction time and the best improvement in working memory,” Mathewson said.
Because increased alpha brain waves indicate a faster learning trajectory, the next question is: how do we increase our alpha brain waves and, thus, our ability to learn? Mathewson said, from moment to moment, you can increase alpha waves by simply closing your eyes and relaxing. Alpha brain waves are present in deep relaxation and usually when the eyes are closed, when slipping into a daydream, or during light meditation. These waves are associated with imagination, visualization, memory, learning, and concentration.
The new findings offer tantalizing new clues to the mental states that appear to enhance one’s ability to perform complex tasks, Mathewson said. It is possible that everyone could benefit from interventions to increase the strength of their alpha waves.
“You can get people to increase their alpha brain waves by giving them some positive feedback,” Mathewson said. “And so you could possibly boost this kind of activity before putting them in the game.”
Mathewson’s research is also focusing on ways to simplify how brain waves are measured. Though it was traditionally not possible to test alpha brain waves without a large EEG system in a lab, Mathewson is using portable EEGs for a variety of projects.
“There are wireless EEG systems that are cheap and accessible, so, in my next line of research, we’re using and creating these to measure alpha brain waves as people are walking around, biking, or playing sports,” Mathewson said. “The final step is to bring these results to an application that can change and help people’s lives. If your phone could measure your focus or concentration based on your brain waves and give you feedback when you need to relax or pay more attention, that could be really helpful.”
As part of his postdoc fellowship, Mathewson is also working with John Rogers, member of 3D Micro- and Nanosystems Group, to try to make an EEG system that would be similar to a band-aid, so EEGs could be portable and directly attachable to the skin. This would give people and researchers very accessible and constant feedback on their brain waves.
Mathewson is also looking at alpha brain wave levels while people are driving a car, using the driving simulator at Beckman’s Illinois Simulator Lab (ISL). He’s working with Beckman Director Art Kramer and his group to see how different brain waves affect driving performance.
“We’re studying how people’s minds wander when they’re driving, and we’re looking at whether their alpha oscillations can predict whether they’re daydreaming or not,” Mathewson said. “And if we know that, it’s possible to build something that will alert drivers when alpha brain waves are sensed and help the driver focus back on the road.”
Mathewson is continually looking for ways to apply his research to real-world applications to improve quality of life. His studies promise to find more ways that brain waves predict our behavior and cognitive ability so that we can react to and hopefully change our brain function for the better.