While new discoveries are constantly being made on the human brain, there is still quite a bit to learn. Further, there are a number of challenges that can impede the rate of progress and flow of information for researchers. As such, new ideas and success stories should be examined to see if there might be a better solution for study. An interview I recently conducted may just be a step in the right, and relatively new, direction.
In an effort to discover more about the impact of art on the human condition, Dr. Natasha Kovacevic, the program manager for the Centre for Integrative Brain Dynamics at the Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest Centre, is also the originator and creative producer of a project called My VirtualDream. She’s using a “consumer” wearable device to measure EEG of over 500 participants as they go through the exercises of her research. The project enabled her to gain a huge statistical number for her research in a very short period of time.
Might this model be employed for medical device study? Could parallels be made for clinical research? Read through the interview and see what your thoughts are on how practical her methods are and whether theycould be adopted for healthcare and the medical device development industry. I think, if nothing else, it hopefully gives neurological researchers pause and causes them to consider if a better method for data gathering could be employed, regardless of how “off the wall” it may seem compared to more traditional approaches.
Sean Fenske: Can you tell me about the experiment you conducted using the Muse wearable?
Dr. Natasha Kovacevic: The experiment was primarily conducted as a proof-of-principle to show that large-scale public art events can serve as a novel data collection framework for neuroscience. To come out of highly controlled lab environment into “real-life” and acquire a massive sample size (EEG data from well over 500 participants, collected in a single night) is an extremely attractive proposition for a researcher. It allows us to start exploring human cognition under naturalistic conditions. We proved that consumer EEG (Interaxon’s Muse) can be utilized as a legitimate research tool. The collaboration with art and performance is another novel aspect of the experiment. It is a special way to engage the public and let them experience and interact with science.
Fenske: What made you decide to use this device for the research?
Dr. Kovacevic: In our choice of EEG technology, we are guided by both research and show requirements. On one hand, for each show, we want to have 20 participants on stage, which means that we need wearable and wireless technology, easy to set up, and comfortable for the users. On the other hand, we want to make sure that EEG data would be reliably recorded and of sufficient quality. For the My Virtual Dream installation of 2103, we approached Interaxon and they were excited to partner with us. We used their prototype headsets, which were specially manufactured for the occasion.
Fenske: What is the goal of your research?
Dr. Kovacevic: By combining art, performance, and brain-computer-interface (BCI), we are now in a position to approach questions of complex real-life social cognition that are otherwise not accessible in lab settings. My vision is to explore the nature of creativity, how art affects us, and what happens to us when we experience it collectively.
Fenske: What were your findings?
Dr. Kovacevic: In the inaugural installation of My Virtual Dream, participants were presented with a game that they played using nothing other than their brain waves. The game introduced them to a special kind of self-discovery, where they found their own strategies to change the brainwaves on demand. When we analyzed the data, we were surprised to find that this kind of learning, called neurofeedback, occurred almost instantaneously. What is also interesting is that this evidence of early learning is so subtle that it reaches statistical significance only with very large sample size (well over 200). Further, we found that not everyone learned in the same way and that ability to modulate beta waves could be predicted from only about three seconds of EEG just before the game.
Fenske: Are you looking to develop brain controlled technology based on your research?
Dr. Kovacevic: Yes, indeed. I am particularly interested in the allure of being able to translate inner states into the sensory world of images and sounds, and the potential for developing new kinds of communication using BCI technology.
Fenske: Were the participants made aware that they were participating in a research experiment?
Dr. Kovacevic: Yes, of course. The data is anonymous, and we collected only age and sex from the participants. In addition, they could indicate whether they wanted us to use their data for research purposes. Only 4 out of 577 participants chose to disallow the use of their EEG.
Fenske: Did you receive any interesting feedback based on the experiences of the participants?
Dr. Kovacevic: Most people were delighted with the experiential and interactive aspects of the experiment. It was exciting to be inside the dome and get a sense of empowerment from seeing one’s own brain in action. Some people thought that we somehow “read their mind” and that we found all those visuals right inside their brains. Which is, of course, not true. It was also interesting to see how important it was for the participants to gain control of the visuals. Sometimes they stayed focused on a small feedback avatar for the entire show, hardly paying any attention to any of the big action around them.
Fenske: Are you looking to do further research experiments? If so, what type? What’s the goal?
Dr. Kovacevic: Any of us can download HD videos and music and enjoy them by ourselves, but live concerts and performances are still incredibly popular. The question is why? Our real-world experimental setup allows us to investigate collective synchrony in real time. Equally interesting is what happens to the performers as they interact with the audience. Inside My Virtual Dream, we aspire to project the live-feed directly from the emotional responses of the audience and performers.
Fenske: What do you see as the future of brain monitoring and/or brain research?
Dr. Kovacevic: We are definitely moving into the era of deeper self-exploration with help of technology. It will be interesting to see how these new insights compare with more traditional meditation techniques. Brain research will be revolutionized when brain-monitoring becomes as easy and affordable as some of the current fitness tools. Every citizen will be a mini-research lab. It is this important link between subjective perception and brain data that helps us understand how the brain works. This link is ultimately in the hands of each individual.
Could a similar approach be used in medical device development for neurological technology? Should it stay on the fringe? Share your thoughts below!