Brainwave Entrainment Improves Learning and Performance
For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that matching a person’s brainwave cycle before a learning task improves cognitive skills at a faster rate.
The study shows that calibrating the delivery of information to match the individual’s natural brain rhythm increases the ability to absorb and adapt to new information.
The University of Cambridge researchers believe these techniques could enhance lifelong learning and preserve neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to restructure and learn, into old age.
According to Professor Zoe Kourtzi, the senior author of the study, each brain has its unique rhythm, and by simulating these fluctuations, the brain can be in its best state to learn and grow.
The findings were published in the journal Cerebral Cortex and will be further researched as part of a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
The study involved 80 participants and the scientists used EEG sensors to measure the electrical activity in the brain and sample brainwave rhythms.
The scientists measured alpha waves in participants. Alpha waves are mid-range brainwaves that are dominant when a person is awake and relaxed.
Each person has their own unique alpha wave frequency within the range of 8 to 12 Hz.
The researchers created an optical “pulse” based on each person’s individual alpha wave frequency to match the person’s natural brain rhythm.
Participants received a 1.5-second dose of the personalized pulse (a technique called “entrainment”) before completing a cognitive task.
The researchers tested participants with different rhythms: some received pulses matching the peak of their waves, some the trough, and others received random or incorrect rhythms.
The results showed that participants who received the correct rhythm improved their performance three times faster compared to the other groups.
The improvement was also maintained when participants completed additional tasks the following day.
Dr. Elizabeth Michael, the first author of the study, said, “It was exciting to uncover the specific conditions you need to get this impressive boost in learning.”
“The technique of entrainment is straightforward, just a brief flicker on a screen, but it produces a strong and long-lasting impact when the right frequency and phase alignment are achieved.”
For entrainment to be effective, the pulse must be synchronized with the trough of a brainwave. Scientists believe that this is the moment when neurons are most receptive.
“Although we think that we are always paying attention to the world, in reality, our brains take quick snapshots and our neurons communicate with each other to put the information together,” says co-author Victoria Leong from NTU and Cambridge’s Department of Pediatrics.
By aligning the delivery of information with the optimal phase of a brainwave, information capture is maximized, as this is when neurons are most excitable. This is the theory behind the study.
Previous work by Leong’s Baby-LINC lab has shown that brainwaves of mothers and babies synchronize when they communicate. Leong believes that the mechanism in this latest study is so effective because it replicates the way we learn as infants.
“We are accessing a mechanism that enables our brain to align with temporal stimuli in our environment, especially communicative cues like speech, gaze, and gesture, which are naturally exchanged during interactions between parents and babies,” says Leong.
“Child-directed speech, a slow and exaggerated form of speaking, may be a way to align the slower brainwaves of children to support learning.”
The researchers believe that the brainwave entrainment mechanisms apply to a wide range of tasks and situations, including auditory learning.
“Brainwave entrainment, which may sound like science fiction, is becoming increasingly achievable. There are now simple headband systems available to easily measure brain frequencies.”
Brainwave entrainment can be used to enhance learning for children who struggle in traditional classrooms, or in professions where fast learning and quick decision-making is crucial, such as pilots or surgeons.
“Implementing brainwave syncing pulses in virtual reality simulations could give learners an advantage or help those retraining later in life.”
Reference: “Learning at your brain’s rhythm: individualized entrainment boosts learning for perceptual decisions” by Elizabeth Michael, Lorena Santamaria Covarrubias, Victoria Leong and Zoe Kourtzi, 9 November 2022, Cerebral Cortex.