Our state of excitement – anxious, agitated, or calm – can greatly affect our ability to make optimal decisions, judgments, and actions in a real dynamic environment. For example, imagine you are going over a balance beam. Their performance – speed across the beam and the likelihood of crossing it without falling off – is dramatically better if the beam is only six inches off the ground and you are more relaxed than on a beam that is 60 meters higher. In order for you to be in the maximum power zone, your arousal needs to be moderate, not so high as to push you over the edge.
Columbia Engineering biomedical engineers have demonstrated for the first time that they can use online neurofeedback to modify a person's state of excitement to improve performance in a demanding sensory engine task, such as airplane flying or suboptimal conditions. The researchers used a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) to monitor the excitement conditions of the study participants in real time by electroencephalography (EEG) when they were involved in a virtual navigation navigation task. The system generated a neurofeedback signal that helped participants reduce their excitement in particularly difficult flight situations, which in turn improved participants' performance. The study was published today by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .
"The whole question of how to get into the zone, whether you're a baseball bat or a stock trader or a fighter Pilot has always been fascinating," says Paul Sajda, Professor of Biomedical Engineering (BME), Electrical Engineering and Radiology, who led the study. "Our work shows that we can use feedback from our own brain activity to change our state of arousal to significantly improve our performance on difficult tasks, such as running the home run or landing on a support deck without crashing."  The 20 subjects entered a virtual scenario in which they had to navigate a simulated plane through rectangular boundaries. This sophisticated sensory-motor task model has created cognitive burdens by narrowing boxes every 30 seconds, escalating arousal and quickly causing the task to fail – missing or falling to the limit. When the researchers used neurofeedback, the subjects were better and could fly longer while doing difficult tasks that required a high degree of visual and motor coordination.
Three randomly assigned feedback conditions (BCI, glare and silence) were set for each new flight attempt. In the BCI state, subjects heard the sound of a low-rate synthetic heartbeat, which was continuously modulated in volume depending on the level of derived task-dependent arousal as decoded by the EEG. The higher the level of arousal, the louder the feedback and vice versa. The task performance of participants in the BCI state, measured as time and distance, over which the subject can navigate away from failure, has been increased by about 20 percent.
"Simultaneous measurements of pupil dilation and heart rate variability showed that neurofeedback actually reduced arousal, leaving the subjects calm and beyond the point where they would normally fail," says lead author of the study, Josef Faller Postdoctoral in the BME. "Our work is the first demonstration of a BCI system that uses online neurofeedback to postpone arousal and improve task performance under the Yerkes-Dodson law."
The Yerkes-Dodson Law is an established and intensely studied law in behavioral psychology on the relationship between arousal and achievement. It was developed in 1908 and has a reverse relationship between arousal and task performance, ie, there is an arousal state that is optimal for behavioral performance in a particular task. In this new study, the researchers showed that they can use neurofeedback in real time to move a person's excitement from the right side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve to the left to a state of improved performance.
"What's exciting about our A new approach is that it can be applied to different roles," adds Sajda. "These include clinical applications in which self-regulation is used as a targeted treatment, for example in mental illness."
The researchers are now exploring how neurofeedback can be used to regulate arousal and emotion for clinical conditions such as PTSD. They also explore how they could use online monitoring of arousal and cognitive control to inform the human-agent team when a robot and a human being work together in a stressful situation like a rescue. If the robot has information about the state of excitement of a person, he or she could choose his or her tasks to reduce the excitement of the teammate and put him / her in an ideal performance zone.
"Good human agent teams like the Navy SEALS, do that, but that's because the human agents can read their teammates' facial expressions, voice patterns, etc., to suggest agitation and stress," says Sajda. "We believe our system is a better way to communicate not just this type of information, but much more to a robot agent."
The condition of moderate excitement leads to optimal performance
"The regulation of arousal by online neurofeedback improves human performance in a demanding sensory-motor task" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/03/11/1817207116
Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
Study shows that a brain-computer interface can improve your performance (2019, March 12)
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