Scientists have shown for the first time that briefly tuning into a person’s individual brainwave cycle before they perform a learning task can dramatically improve the speed at which cognitive skills improve.
Calibrating rates of information delivery to match our brain’s natural tempo increases our ability to absorb and adapt to new information, the team behind the study explained.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge say these techniques could help us maintain “neuroplasticity” much later in life and promote lifelong learning.
Each brain has its own natural rhythm, which is generated by the oscillations of neurons working together. We mimicked these fluctuations so that the brain is in tune with itself – and in the best condition to thrive.”
Senior author of the study Prof Joe Kortzi from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology
“The plasticity of our brains is the ability to restructure and learn new things while constantly building on previous patterns of neuronal interactions. By using brain wave rhythms, it may be possible to promote flexible learning throughout life, from childhood to old age,” Kortzi said.
The results, published in the journal Cerebral cortexWill be explored as part of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Individualized Cognition: a research collaboration between Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
Neuroscientists used scalp-mounted electroencephalography — or EEG — sensors to measure electrical activity in the brains of 80 study participants and sample brainwave rhythms.
The team read the alpha waves. In the mid-range of the brainwave spectrum, this wave frequency dominates when we are awake and at rest.
Alpha waves repeat between eight and twelve hertz: a complete cycle every 85-125 milliseconds. However, each person has their own peak alpha frequency within that range.
Scientists used these readings to create an optical “pulse”: a white square flashing on a dark background at the same tempo as each person’s personal alpha wave.
Participants received a 1.5-second dose of personalized pulses to get their brains working at their natural rhythms—a technique called “entrainment”—before being presented with a difficult rapid-fire cognitive task: trying to identify specific shapes within a barrage of visual clutter. .
A brain wave cycle consists of a peak and a trough. Some participants received pulses that coincided with the peaks of their waves, some troughs, while some received pulses that were random or at the wrong rate (slightly fast or slow). Each participant repeated more than 800 variations of the cognitive task, and neuroscientists measured how quickly people improved.
The learning rate for those who locked into the correct rhythm was at least three times faster than for all other groups. When the participants returned the next day to complete another round of tasks, those who learned more quickly maintained their higher performance levels.
“It was exciting to discover the specific conditions you need to achieve this impressive boost in learning,” said first author Dr Elizabeth Michael, now at Cambridge’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
“The intervention itself is very simple, just a short flicker on the screen, but when we hit the right frequency and the right phase alignment, it seems to have a strong and lasting effect.”
Importantly, the entrainment pulses need to ring with the trough of the brainwave. Scientists believe that this is the point in the cycle when neurons are in a state of “high receptivity.”
“We think we go through a continuous world, but in fact our brains take quick snapshots and then our neurons communicate with each other to piece the information together,” said co-author Professor Victoria Leong, from the Department of Paediatrics at NTU and Cambridge. .
“Our hypothesis is that by matching information delivery to the optimal phase of the brainwave, we maximize information capture because this is when our neurons are at their peak of arousal.”
Previous work from Leong’s Baby-LINC lab shows that the brain waves of mothers and babies will synchronize when they communicate. Leong believes the mechanism of this latest study is so effective because it mirrors the way we learn as infants.
“We are tapping into a mechanism that allows our brains to align temporal stimuli to our environment, particularly the communicative signals such as speech, care and gestures that are naturally exchanged during interactions between parents and children,” Leong said.
“When adults speak to young children they adopt child-directed speech – a slower and exaggerated form of speaking. This study suggests that child-directed speech may be an intuitive way to rate-match and tap into children’s slower brainwaves to support learning.”
The researchers say that, as the new study examines visual perception, these mechanisms may be “domain general”: applicable to a wide range of tasks and situations, including auditory learning.
They argue that the potential applications for brainwave entrainment may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but are increasingly achievable. “While our studies used complex EEG machines, there are now simple headband systems that allow you to easily measure brain frequencies,” Kortzi said.
“Kids now do much of their learning in front of a screen. One could imagine using brainwave rhythms to enhance aspects of learning for kids who struggle in regular classrooms because of attention deficits.”
Other early applications of brainwave entrainment to promote learning may include training in professions where rapid learning and quick decision making are important, such as pilots or surgeons. “Virtual reality simulations are now an effective part of training in many professions,” Kortzi said.
“Applying pulses that sync with brainwaves to these virtual environments could give new learners an edge, or help retrainers later in life.”
Michael, E. et al. (2022) Learning at the Rhythm of Your Brain: Individual Arrangements Promote Learning for Perceptual Decisions. Cerebral cortex. doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhac426.