Easily distracted? Training your brain’s activity could help

Some day it could help people concentrate

focused kids

Lots of people struggle to pay attention. Scientists are trying to find ways to help people concentrate by learning how to control the electrical activity inside their brains.

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Distracted much? Help with focusing might one day come from inside your own brain. Researchers have now shown that people can train their brain’s electrical activity in ways that focus their attention.

Scientists published their findings on February 5 in Neuron.

Brainwaves are patterns of electrical activity in the brain. Neuroscientists use them to study the brain. Some of those scientists have been working to figure out if brainwaves play a role in behavior. The new study suggests that “it’s not that [these waves are] a side effect of what’s going on in the brain,” says Ole Jensen. “They seem to be really important for how the brain functions and allocates attention.” Jensen is a neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham in England. He was not involved in the work.

Yasaman Bagherzadeh was. This neuroscientist helped lead the new study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Her team eavesdropped on brain activity in 20 adults. The scientists wanted to explore how brainwaves might affect attention.

To do so, they used a device that monitors magnetic fields associated with brainwaves. One type of those waves, alpha waves, pulses at a rate of around 10 times per second. It plays a role in filtering out distractions, Bagherzadeh explains. 

During the study, participants sat with their heads under the monitoring device and watched a computer screen. Each recruit saw a pattern of lines in the middle. Initially, the lines looked fairly blurry. The recruits were told to look at the lines and somehow make them less blurry. For the participants, this task was like playing a game. But they weren’t told the rules or exactly what the goal was.

The researchers used the lines to give each participant feedback about their alpha waves, moment by moment. The pattern got clearer when the recruits changed their brainwaves in the specific ways the researchers wanted. 

In general, we are not aware of what is happening in our brains, Bagherzadeh points out. But “we saw that [people] can control their brain activity.” 

Without realizing they were doing it, the participants changed their alpha waves. The scientists reasoned that this brainwave work was training the participants’ attention. Later, the team tested the recruits’ attention. Sure enough, strengthening alpha waves in one side of the brain changed where people focused during a later task. 

This idea and the techniques behind this method have been around for decades, Jensen notes. Some companies even sell similar programs for brain training. But the improvements those companies claim to offer have been hard to confirm, he adds. What makes this study different is that it looks at what’s going on inside the brain instead of just looking to improve attention.  

Surfing a brainwave

Because of how the brain is wired, when you look toward the right, alpha waves on the brain’s left side respond, notes Laetitia Chauvière. She’s a neuroscientist at the Institute of Psychiatry and Neuroscience of Paris in France. She was not involved with the new study.  

As alpha waves strengthen, people are less likely to pay attention, she says. So, by reducing alpha waves in the left side of the brain, she explains, someone can pay more attention to what’s happening on their right.   

With that in mind, the study had its participants focus to make alpha waves stronger on one side of their brains and weaker on the other. Half of the participants were supposed to make the left-side alpha waves stronger than the right. The others were to make the right-side waves stronger than the left. If participants shifted the strength of their brainwaves as the scientists wanted them to, the lines on the screen became less fuzzy. 

An hour after this training, the study subjects took a few attention tests. In one task, participants were asked to focus on the center of a screen. Once in a while, an image would appear on one side of the screen or the other. Participants were supposed to shift their attention to this new image, while keeping their gaze at the center of the screen. The scientists tracked how quickly the participants shifted their attention once the image appeared.  

The recruits tended to respond more quickly to the side of the brain they had trained to be attentive. The scientists also showed the participants pictures of places and shapes. The recruits now spent more time gazing at the side they had trained to be more attentive. 

Some of the time, a cue told participants where to expect the image. In those cases, the training wasn’t quite strong enough to overcome the cue to direct their attention, Chauvière notes. Still, she says, “This is very promising” as a way to potentially help people boost attentiveness. 

The goal of the work was never to train one side of the brain to concentrate better, says Robert Desimone. He’s another MIT neuroscientist who worked on the study. Rather, the team aims to learn how to change brainwaves to boost attention overall. His group also wants to study how long a bump in attention lasts after training — and whether other types of brainwaves also play some role. 

“Ultimately we’re interested in helping people who have a problem paying attention,” he says, because “this is a very common problem.”

The method could have other advantages, Desimone says. “You don’t take any medicines. It’s a completely non-invasive procedure.” (That means no objects have to be placed in the brain.) Finally, he adds, “The subjects find it kind of fun to do.”

Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News Explores. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

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