Friday, 2 November 2012

Neurofeedback, brain computer interaction and thought controlled computing

Technologies have developed to enable individuals to control computing devices using brainwaves.  The pioneer in this field was Joe Kamiya who conducted experiments in the 1960s that showed that it was possible to train subjects to control an auditory tone by entering into an alpha state.  The field of neurofeedback developed from this discovery, initially as a way of inducing relaxation states associated with alpha brainwaves and later as a way of altering brainwave patterns associated with clinical conditions such as epilepsy and ADHD.   Since its inception and continuing today, neurofeedback is used to improve quality of life by training people to relax, to optimize performance and to manage clinical conditions.  The technology of neurofeedback has broadened in recent years as alternatives to EEG for measuring brain activity have become available, but the principle underlying neurofeedback has remained the same:  It is possible to measure our brain activity and feed back those measurements to us so that we can alter that activity in a desired way.

The field of brain computer interaction (BCI) developed in the 1970s.  Its application has been primarily in developing devices that assist, augment or repair cognitive and sensory-motor functions.  In addition to neurofeedback-like applications using non-invasive electrodes and feedback techniques, BCI employs prosthetic devices and brain implants that allow users to manipulate their minds to produce signals to computers and other communication devices that can, in turn, manipulate external objects or control the user's own body movements.  The feedback in these cases is the movement observable to the user.

Thought controlled computing appears to be a re-branding of neurofeedback and brain computer interaction by Ariel Garten and others.  It is gaining media attention but not always with acknowledgements that the concept and underlying technology are not new (see http://interaxon.ca/press).  Ms. Garten has tapped into our fascination with the idea that we can use the mind to control objects and to know itself and develop skills by externalizing information about the brain's activity.  Although the concept is not new or original to her, the particular technology she is promoting -- inexpensive, convenient and wearable EEG bands -- is relatively new. It remains to be seen whether the device she is promoting (Muse) is superior to the other such devices (NeuroSky and Emotiv) that are available and whether the algorithms that Interaxon is developing for analyzing EEG represent genuine advances in the field.

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