EEG or Neurofeedback training sounds like a sci-fi concept to those hear about it the first time. It’s something you can do to monitor your brain activity, then learn to recognize the graphs that are generated from monitoring your mental state and eventually excercise your mind to will it into a particular state of mind. It’s like working out your mind, much the same way you work out your body.
EEG devices let you see the results and measure your performance so it’s not like walking in the dark — you can actually see the results of your mental activity and assess your success in controlling your mental states. The devices can be bought for around $800 or so off the internet. OpenEEG is an open source project for assembling your own neurofeedback device and they have some software that lets you assess the results of your neurofeedback sessions.
How does it work?
Everytime the brain is going through any kind of mental state, there is a series of neurons that fire. Neurons are nerve cells, and like any cell they have a positive and negative charge — which creates electrochemical activity. Neurons pass the message (or electrochemical charge) along a line of neighbouring neurons. In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson refers to the firing of neurons as a ballet. I tend to visualize neural activity to be like a firework of neurons (quite literally the flow of electrochemical charge). Each set of fireworks gives us a different state of mind. When we are really attentive, fearful or excited or any other emotional state, a particular type of neural firework or ballet is taking place in some region of the brain. Each of those mental states has a different constellation of neurons firing and EEG/neurofeedback devices can capture most of this activity and recognize the constellations.
EEG devices have electrodes attached to different parts of your head and they are sensitive to any electrochemical activity. These electrodes are connected through a wire to a central unit which processes incoming data from all electrodes and generates a graph (or maybe some other kind of output) based on which electrodes are firing and how intensly.
If you have the EEG/neurofeedback device attached to your head and do some of your regular activity like reading a book or watching a movie, you can view what the graph looks like when you were really concentrated or excited. Each individual’s brain generates a distinct graph and once you recognize which graph patterns correspond to what mental state it becomes really easy to assess — almost objectively — what mental state your mind is in. It also makes it easy to will your mind into producing that particular graph and thereby getting yourself into any mental state (I think actor’s would be really good at this).
Things get even more exciting, however, when data is flowing in the opposite direction: from the computer to your brain by directly injecting chemicals into regions of your brain. Drugs already do this by inhibiting or stimulating particular parts of your brain but a direct neural interface allows for a more controlled experience. You could experience a more specific type of euphoric feeling, or reactivate a lost memory. The future is almost here.