It’s Possible to Train Yourself to Control Your Own Brain Activity

Specific brain imaging studies like “real-time fMRI” have shown that people can exert better control over some parts of the brain by focusing on their thoughts. However, until recently, it has not been studied whether people can control a special part of the brain called the anterior prefrontal cortex. This part is involved in complex thought processes of the brain. The results showed suggest that through various relaxation brain training exercises people can control this area of the brain.

With advances in brain imaging technologies, recent studies have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the ability people have to control their own thoughts. The researchers believe that the connection between brain activity, as detected by the device, and mental control over thoughts could help in certain clinical conditions. However, the anterior prefrontal cortex has not been explored in this context, as yet. This part of the brain is important in many cognitive functions. Its lateral sector, the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, aids in “reflection upon one’s own mental contents”, reasoning that is complex, memory retrieval, moral decision taking, multitasking, complex thoughts etc.

* For this study, a total of 30 individuals who were healthy and right handed were chosen. While some of them were put in the experimental group, 12 were in the control group. The participants did not know whether they were in the control group or in the experimental group.
* All participants underwent four training sessions, each lasting six minutes, to control their thoughts, while the brain scan was in progress. Each session had alternating up-regulation (observing thoughts in a non-judgmental way) and down-regulation blocks (focusing on body awareness, a meditative body scan).
* During some parts of the training, the participants had to try to raise the activation of their rostrolateral prefrontal cortex by observing their thoughts.
* During other parts of training, the participants had to direct their attention away from their thoughts to feelings by scanning their body. For example becoming aware of the different parts of their body: hands, feet, and legs. This is a meditative body scan.

Key findings
* This experiment showed that participants could regulate the specific studied part of their brain on the fMRI by modulating their attention towards their own thoughts.
* “The present results show that by using rt-fMRI feedback and a meta-cognitive awareness strategy, subjects were able to achieve enhanced control.”
* On the other hand, the group that was in the control and did not see their actual brain scans real time, but viewed other fake pictures, could not control their brain activity.
* It was also noted that training sessions markedly improved the ability of the experimental group in regulating the activation of the target brain area, more than those without the training.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The authors are still uncertain about the reason the participants could control their brain activities by their thoughts alone. They suggest that this study involved people from the general population, but future studies with people who are better at controlling their thoughts – for example those who meditate regularly – can give a better insight into these results.

The authors conclude that specific training can enable a person to control one’s brain activity to a great extent. This is important in the field of cognitive neuroscience, which deals with brain activity and its connections with active thought processes. Simply put, “by allowing subjects to see a reflection of their own thought processes in the measured brain activation, MRI (real-time functional MRI) offers a new method for examining the correspondences between highly subjective mental states and neural processes.”

For More Information:
Modulation of Thoughts and Brain Activity Using Real Time fMRI
Publication Journal: Neuroimage, December 2010
By R Graeme McCaig; Matt Dixon
From the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada



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