Health Technologies

Tuning into brainwaves speeds up adult learning

Briefly tuning into a person’s individual brainwave cycle before they perform a learning task dramatically boosts the speed at which cognitive skills improve, researchers have learned.

Calibrating rates of information delivery to match the natural tempo of our brains increases our capacity to absorb and adapt to new information, the team behind the study say.

University of Cambridge scientists say that these techniques could help us retain “neuroplasticity” much later in life and advance lifelong learning.

Senior author Prof Zoe Kourtzi from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, said:

“Our brain’s plasticity is the ability to restructure and learn new things, continually building on previous patterns of neuronal interactions.

“By harnessing brainwave rhythms, it may be possible to enhance flexible learning across the lifespan, from infancy to older adulthood,” Kourtzi said.

The neuroscientists used EEG sensors attached to the head to measure electrical activity in the brain of 80 study participants, and sample brainwave rhythms.

The researchers took alpha waves readings – this wave frequency tends to dominate when we are awake and relaxed.

These waves oscillate between eight to twelve hertz: a full cycle every 85-125 milliseconds.

However, each person has their own peak alpha frequency within that range.

The neuroscientists used these readings to create an optical “pulse”: a white square flickering on a dark background at the same tempo as each person’s individual alpha wave.

Participants received a 1.5-second dose of personalised pulse to set their brain working at its natural rhythm – a technique called “entrainment” – before being presented with a tricky quick-fire cognitive task: trying to identify specific shapes within a barrage of visual clutter.

Some participants received pulses matching the peak of their waves, some the trough, while others got rhythms that were either random or at the wrong rate).

Each participant repeated over 800 variations of the cognitive task, and the researchers measured how quickly people improved.

The learning rate for those locked into the right rhythm was at least three times faster than for all the other participant groups.

When the participants returned the next day to complete another round of tasks, those who learned much faster under entrainment had maintained their higher performance level.

Dr Elizabeth Michael of Cambridge’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

“The intervention itself is very simple, just a brief flicker on a screen, but when we hit the right frequency plus the right phase alignment, it seems to have a strong and lasting effect.”

Co-author Prof Victoria Leong, from NTU and Cambridge’s Department of Paediatrics, believes the mechanism in this latest study is so effective because it mirrors the way we learn as infants.

The researcher said:

“We are tapping into a mechanism that allows our brain to align to temporal stimuli in our environment, especially communicative cues like speech, gaze and gesture that are naturally exchanged during interactions between parents and babies.

“When adults speak to young children they adopt child-directed speech – a slow and exaggerated form of speaking.

“This study suggests that child-directed speech may be a spontaneous way of rate-matching and entraining the slower brainwaves of children to support learning.”

Future application of applications of brainwave entrainment could involve training in professions where fast learning and quick decision-making is vital, such as pilots or surgeons, the researchers say.

Kourtzi said:

“Virtual reality simulations are now an effective part of training in many professions.

“Implementing pulses that sync with brainwaves in these virtual environments could give new learners an edge, or help those retraining later in life.”

Image: University of Cambridge



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