University of British Columbia scientists have discovered that real-time brain feedback significantly improves people's ability to control their thoughts and effectively 'train their brains.'
Their study is the world's first investigation of how real-time functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) feedback from the brain region responsible for higher-order thoughts, including introspection, affects our ability to control these thoughts.
"Just like athletes in training benefit from a coach's guidance, feedback from our brain can help us to be more aware of our thoughts," said co-author Prof. Kalina Christoff, UBC Dept. of Psychology.
"Our findings suggest that the ability to control our thinking improves when we know how the corresponding area in our brain is behaving," he said.
Participants involved in the study performed tasks that either raised or lowered mental introspection in 30-second intervals over four six-minute sessions.
fMRI technology tracked real-time activity in the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC), the region of the brain involved with higher-order thoughts.
Participants with access to real-time fMRI feedback could see their RLPFC activity increase during introspection and decrease during non-introspective thoughts, such as mental tasks that focused on body sensations.
These participants used the feedback to guide their thoughts, which significantly improved their ability to control their thoughts and successfully perform the mental tasks. In contrast, participants given inaccurate or no brain feedback did not achieve any improvement in brain regulation.
"When participants saw their brain reacting to their thoughts, they knew whether they were performing the task well or poorly, and they could adjust their thoughts accordingly," said co-author Graeme McCaig, a graduate of UBC's Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering's Human Computer Interaction specialization.
"As a result, participants who received the real-time feedback were able to focus on the mental task more consistently," said McCaig.
The UBC team said their study points to the possibility of improving our everyday lives through fMRI-assisted advances in our ability to focus our minds on personal or professional matters.
The findings also raise hope for clinical treatments of conditions that can benefit from improved awareness and regulation of one's thoughts, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, said the researchers.
The finding has been published in the current issue of NeuroImage journal.