Using technology to assess and monitor our health is nothing new. Smartphones and smartwatches deliver data on our daily habits: our sleep patterns; how far we’ve traveled; our heart rate when we wake up and when we exercise; how long we’ve been sitting around. But for as much personal health data our smart devices deliver, it’s a passive, one-way feed. They can tell you how long you’ve been sitting at a desk but can’t, for example, tell you how much you’ve focused on a particular project.
As we enter the 2020s, the challenge to concentrate is all the more pertinent. A few years ago, a study from Microsoft revealed that people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds (the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds), underscoring the effects of an increasingly digitized lifestyle on the brain. The smart technology age has ushered along with it an array of distractions unimaginable barely 20 years ago. Social media alerts, push messages from newspapers nudging you midday to read a week-old think piece, and the latest GIF on your team’s Slack channel all compete for your attention. Kids are similarly drawn into their devices, lured by funny memes, YouTube channels, and TikTok videos that are designed to capture their attention in short, easily digestible bursts of content.
Wrist-borne fitness info is useful, to be sure. But as much as our tech devices give, they also take from our focus and concentration. It’s time for our tech to start rectifying that. Science and technology are at a perfect moment in time to work together to help people overcome distractions and learn to concentrate.
Enter neurofeedback as a tech-driven, non-pharmaceutical method for the mind to reroute itself back from daydreaming and concentrate on the task at hand.
The science behind neurofeedback
The key to neurofeedback’s efficacy is what neuroscientists and psychologists call operant conditioning. Much like training a dog to sit and speak on command—though much more complex—the human brain can relearn ways of thinking and reacting based on the consequences and rewards perceived to follow. Leading child psychologists have noted that neurofeedback training for ADHD shows promise and have integrated brain training into their practices.
Neurofeedback has been shown to help change brain wave and brain function patterns. As measured during an electroencephalogram (EEG) test, children who have been diagnosed with ADHD often show more theta, or low-frequency or slowbrain waves compared to beta, or high-frequency fast brain waves. Through operant conditioning, children taking part in neurofeedback training effectively learn to generate more faster waves and fewer slow waves.
“Neurofeedback training for children with ADHD attempts to minimize the occurrence of lower frequency theta waves and enhance the occurrence of higher frequency beta waves. This is done by rewarding the children each time they demonstrate beta waves during neurofeedback training,” writes Tedi Asher, who earned her PhD from the biological and biomedical sciences program at Harvard Medical School, in a February 2017 Harvard publication. “Through the process of operant conditioning, the children intuitively learn to promote beta waves and suppress theta waves.” In other words, they’re showing more concentration.
How does this training actually work in practice? Think of a video game. As you move through the levels, you learn that one action will lead to a positive result, such as more points or staying alive. A wrong move can mean “game over.” Incidentally, rocket scientists and pilots have used video games precisely as neurofeedback tools.
During the late 1980s, when automation was beginning to take full root in NASA flight systems, Alan Pope, a researcher with the space agency’s Langley Research Center, wanted to figure out just what was the right balance between machine-operated and human-powered flight decks. Pope set up computer desktop flight simulators for pilots to work while wearing electrodes on their heads. The readings measured electrical currents from neurons working in the head.
When the pilot’s readings showed more engagement, the flight controls grew more automated; when the pilot’s readings showed less engagement (ie: wandering thoughts), the simulator required more engagement from the pilot. Effectively, NASA created a video game for neurofeedback training. Over the intervening years, this space-age technology has since been adopted by other tools devised to allow for neurofeedback training at home.
Tools for neurofeedback training at home
One such tool that integrates neurofeedback technology with doing homework—or any task at hand that necessitates concentration—are the glasses by Narbis that have recently come on the market. Like the 1980s flight simulator, they are built on NASA technology and research. The wrap-around-style glasses have a sensor perched on top of the head to measure brainwave activity. When the system detects that the user is getting distracted, the glasses change tint, which alerts you that you have become distracted – giving you the cue to get back on task. Shifting attention back to the task at hand will make the glasses go back to clear. Narbis recommends wearing the glasses for a half hour two to three times a week to practice concentration.
Quieter moments of the day can also lend themselves to neurofeedback training. While it can’t be used during everyday activities, Muse integrates the use of a mobile meditation app with its signature headband to help provide relaxation while retraining the brain. Worn with your eyes closed and while meditating, the headband measures brainwave activity and sends it to the app, which adjusts the sounds playing to reflect the wearer’s state. Calmer nature sounds reflect relaxed focus. Should the user grow distracted, the app begins to play increasingly stormy weather.
Though there is more research to be done, studies on neurofeedback so far have nodded to its potential, and in several studies has been shown to be equivalently effective as stimulant medication in treating core ADHD symptoms. As with pharmaceuticals, patients’ experiences and outcomes with neurofeedback technology may vary. Prescriptions such as Adderall can be helpful to many people who have problems maintaining the attention they need. Yet for anyone looking to gain some clarity and focus, neurofeedback may be the ticket to help develop concentration from within.