Mindfulness-based awareness training can help people learn to better control brain-computer interfaces. But a new study has found that a single guided mindfulness meditation exercise isn’t enough to boost performance. The findings, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, suggest that a longer period of meditation is needed in order for people to experience observable improvements.
The authors of the research are interested in exploring the potential benefits of using mindfulness meditation as a training tool to improve the performance of brain-computer interfaces, which allow individuals to control machines or computers directly from their brain, bypassing the traditional neuromuscular pathway. These devices have the potential to greatly benefit people with conditions such as spinal cord injuries, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Previous studies have shown that one of the most effective signals for brain-computer interface control is the sensorimotor rhythm produced in the primary sensorimotor areas during motor imagery. However, not everyone is able to effectively control brain-computer interfaces, with approximately 20% of the population being “BCI-inefficient” even with extensive training. Therefore, researchers are looking for ways to improve performance, and one potential method is through meditation.
“I am developing noninvasive brain-computer interface techniques that can ‘read’ humans’ mind and control a device. For such techniques, we use noninvasive brain wave signals. The approach may be applied to most individuals in our society but has challenges that in some human subjects, it is slow or hard to learn such ‘mind-control’ technique,” said study author Bin He, a professor of bioengineering at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the NIH Neural Interfacing Training Program.
“Research in my lab suggested an 8-week mindful meditation experience can help humans to learn and improve the skills for ‘mind-control.’ We conducted this research in order to address the question that if a brief meditation would have an immediate effect instead of an 8-weeks meditation class.”
The researchers previously conducted a study to investigate whether short-term mindfulness meditation training could enhance brain-computer interface performance. They enrolled participants in an 8-week course of simple meditation techniques and compared their performance to a control group that did not receive any meditation training. The participants were then tasked with learning to control a brain-computer interface system by using their thoughts to navigate a cursor on a computer screen.
The study found that participants who received meditation training showed significant advantages in brain-computer interface control compared to those without prior meditation training. The researchers also observed differences in brain activity between the two groups, with the meditation group demonstrating enhanced capability in modulating their alpha rhythm, which is the activity pattern used by the brain-computer interface system to control the cursor.
In their new study, the researchers investigated whether a 20-minute mindfulness exercise could enhance mindfulness and subsequently improve brain-computer interface performance. They also wanted to compare the effects of the brief meditation exercise with a control exercise to determine if meditation induces different effects on the brain compared to other activities.
They recruited 37 participants from Carnegie Mellon University who had no prior experience with brain-computer interfaces or limited experience with mindfulness meditation. The participants were divided into three groups: one group practiced mindfulness meditation in both sessions, another group practiced meditation in the first session and a control exercise in the second session, and the third group did the control exercise in the first session and meditation in the second session.
The researchers observed that the control exercise, where participants listened to a reading, increased their awareness of the present moment. On the other hand, the meditation exercise allowed participants to distance themselves from their thoughts and feelings and experience something new. However, these differences did not translate into significant differences in brain-computer interface performance between the two groups.
“I would anticipate some level of improvement in performance even though not significant, but the results suggest that 20-minute brief meditation can hardly have an effect on brain computer interface,” He explained.
The researchers analyzed the EEG patterns of the participants during the interventions and resting state. They observed alpha band activity in the occipital region of the brain during both meditation and control interventions, likely because the participants were asked to keep their eyes closed. However, there were no significant differences between the interventions in terms of EEG power.
“The results from this work show that a certain length of meditation practice is needed in order to help improve the ability for brain-computer interface, i.e. to control a computer cursor using mind,” He told PsyPost. “Such meditation training for a duration can generate neural adaptation so to help individuals to better control a device by ‘thought.'”
There are some limitations to consider in this study. For example, the researchers said that the the experimental setup may have caused some participants to become drowsy, which could have affected their engagement with the meditation exercise or their performance in later tasks.
Another caveat is that the specific meditation intervention used in the study focused on imagery of movement. It is uncertain whether a different type of meditation practice would have yielded different results in terms of mindfulness levels and brain-computer interface performance.
“We still need to understand how much ‘dose’ of meditation would be minimally needed,” He said. “We also need to understand why a 8-weeks meditation practice can improve significantly the performance of mind control.”
The study, “Immediate effects of short-term meditation on sensorimotor rhythm-based brain–computer interface performance“, was authored by Jeehyun Kim, Xiyuan Jiang, Dylan Forenzo, Yixuan Liu, Nancy Anderson, Carol M. Greco, and Bin He.