Neurofeedback and Improved Performance in Cognitive Functioning, Sport and Art
Dr Shelley Hyman
Neurofeedback (NF) is a non-invasive technique that follows the principles of positive reinforcement to attempt to help individuals learn and modify cortical activity. NF is commonly used to aid individuals with below average functioning to improve to a “normal “standard. However the technique is also being implemented to assist individuals with normal functioning to reach optimum level. In particular the effect of NF has been assessed on sport, cognitive and artistic performance. A review conducted by Vernon (2005), examined evidence of NF and associated performance outcomes in individuals with normal functioning.
Research has found distinct differences in cortical activity between amateur and expert sportsmen. One such example is the increase of alpha activity in the left temporal area during skill preparation. This increase represents a reduction of cortical activity, meaning more focus is placed in the right hemisphere, used for visual-spatial tasks. An experiment of professional archers, divided participants into a NF group and control group. Individuals receiving NF training where trained to either decrease alpha activity in their left or right temporal regions. Individuals in the NF group who decreased alpha activity in their left significantly improved their performance, measured by distance from the centre of the target, compared to the group decreasing alpha in their right. The control group showed no change in performance.
There have been numerous findings that associate certain levels of brain activity with different cognitive functions. For example
- Theta activity plays a role in forming memories at a cellular level
- Theta activity assists in encoding of information for working memory
- Alpha waves are increased in the left hemisphere during verbal thoughts and in the right for visual thoughts
- Lower alpha waves are association with attention
- Upper alpha waves are associated with semantic memory
- People who are characterised as highly creative have lower alpha rhythms in the right occipital-parietal region and are more efficient are suppressing them
NF training has therefore been used to target certain brain activity patterns to improve a range of cognitive functions.
Theta training works on the principle that suppression in the left parietal-occipital region leads to increased attention. In an experiment where participants were trained to either supress or enhance theta waves, suppression lead to significantly better performance in a radar detection task compared to enhanced.
Alpha training has focused on the improvement of short term memory ability, however results have been mixed. Although NF enables participants to produce significantly more alpha waves, performance does not always improve to a significant level. This may be due to the lack of focus on the differing roles of lower and upper alpha waves, and their roles in memory.
The effect of beta moderation on attention has also been assessed. Most participants are able to modify activity, and increase the speed at which the task is completed, although performance is not always improved. The area of most improvement tends to be individuals ability to discriminate between targets.
Research has shown that when passively listening to music, professional musicians produce more alpha activity than non-musicians. A study of ten music students who received NF training which aimed to increase SMR, beta or theta activity, showed marginal improvement on performance compared to those with no training.
Another study that trained students to enhance their theta waves over beta produced significant improvements in overall music quality, understanding, accuracy and interpretation.
NF has also shown to be an effective training technique for improving professional dancer’s performance. NF focusing on alpha and theta activity significantly improved dancer’s performance compared to those with no training, where controlling for hours spent practicing performance.
- Vernon, D. J. (2005). Can neurofeedback training enhance performance? An evaluation of the evidence with implications for future research. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 30, 347-364. DOI: 10.1007/s10484-005-8421-4