People who have practiced yoga or other type of meditation for at least a year are better able to control a computer with their minds than people with little or no meditation experience, according to a University of Minnesota study published recently in the journal Technology.
The findings could have major implications for people who are paralyzed or who have a disabling neuromuscular disease, such as cerebral palsy or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), for it suggests that becoming skilled in meditation may help them learn how to manipulate a computer, wheelchair or artificial limb with thoughts rather than muscles — an emerging technology known as brain-computer interfacing (BCI).
“This is probably the first study of this kind to look at the long-term effect of yoga and meditation on BCI in such a comprehensive way,” said Bin He, the study’s lead researcher and director of the U’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine and Center for Neuroengineering, in a phone interview with MinnPost.
Even for people who are non-disabled, techniques that enhance brain-computer interfacing may come in handy one day. “Although [BCI] technology is now in its infancy, it will eventually become something all of us can benefit from,” said He. “It will give us more capability beyond just using our two hands.”
Testing a hypothesis
In 2013, He and his colleagues made the remarkable announcement that they had created a BCI system that allowed people to fly a helicopter robot around a room using only their minds. The participants wore special noninvasive caps with EEG electrodes embedded in them. The caps were able to pick up brain activity, which was then translated via a computer into an electronic command that was sent via WiFi to the helicopter.
During that experiment, He noticed that some people learned to control a computer with their thoughts more easily than others. One young woman was particularly adept at it and outperformed everybody else.
“She told us that she had multiple years experience with yoga and meditation,” said He. “That triggered my hypothesis that maybe yoga and meditation could help human subjects gain the skills to control an object using their thoughts alone.”
To test that hypothesis, He and his team recruited 36 participants — 17 women and 19 men, aged 22 to 35 years. Twelve had practiced some kind of formal mind-body awareness training, including yoga meditation, at least twice a week for a year. The other 24 participants — the control group — had little or no experience with meditation. None of the participants had ever attempted brain-computer interfacing before.
Both groups participated in three, two-hour BCI training sessions over a period of one to four weeks. Wearing a cap similar to the one used in the helicopter experiment, the volunteers were instructed to move a cursor across a computer screen by imagining their right or left hand making the movement. If they achieved an accuracy of 80 percent or better with this task, they then “progressed” to the next task: using their thoughts to move the cursor up and down.
Three times more accurate
He and his colleagues found that the participants with previous mind-body awareness training tended to learn and perform the BCI tasks with greater accuracy and speed than the control group. About 75 percent of the subjects who had been practicing some kind of meditation were able to successfully complete all the required tasks, while only 33 percent of those in the control group were able to do so.
“I was very surprised,” said He. “These findings are very significant.”
It appears, he added, that experience with meditation enhances people’s ability to concentrate and focus, which, in turn, alters their brain signals in ways that enable better — and faster — control of the computer cursor.
Other studies have shown that people who meditate regularly have brain-activity patterns that are distinctly different from those of people who don’t meditate.
The U study, like all studies, has its limitations. It involved only a small number of participants, and it could be that people who are drawn to meditation and who practice it regularly are better able to focus their thoughts in the first place.
For their next study, the U researchers plan to introduce new volunteers to mind-body awareness techniques and then observe them over a period of time to see if it enhances their ability to learn how to use BCI technology. BCI training can be tedious, said He, so any technique that might speed it up and make it easier would be welcomed.
You can read the study in full on Technology’s website, although you will need to register on the site first.