Sensors stitched into a cap pick up the brain’s electrical activity, providing researchers with real-time information on how the brain reacts to various situations.
Angry storms of red blobs whiz from hemisphere to hemisphere. Orange and yellow clouds blossom and swirl around the orb’s circumference. Stripes of softer colors--blues and greens--appear and then fade a millisecond later.
The readout on the computer looks like a series of time-lapse photos of some weird exoplanet, except the world these researchers are exploring is far more mysterious and far less charted than any alien world.
It’s your brain.
Two Penn State researchers are using portable electroencephalogram (EEG) technology and the latest insights in neuroscience to move our understanding of the brain out of the laboratory and into the classroom, where they hope their findings can head off ethical lapses on the job and combat bullying in schools.
"The EEG technology has progressed enough to help us to look into how the brain is working in real time," says Carlos Zalaquett , professor of education. "And this is what we mean by ’translational.’ We are taking advanced knowledge produced by disciplines, like neuroscience, neurobiology, molecular biology, and cognitive science, and finding ways to use that information to inform and create applications that can be implemented in real-life situations."
More than a pretty map
Zalaquett, who watches the colorful storms flash across the computer screen, explains that the colors represent bursts of electrochemical activity in certain areas of the brain.
For the researchers, this isn’t just a pretty map. By noting what areas are activated and how intensely they are activated, the readout can tell them whether a student in a classroom is engaged and understanding a lesson, or not paying attention at all.
As the brain’s neurons shoot out electrical pulses, sensors stitched into a cap worn by the participant pick up this electrical activity. Software converts it into the computer readout. While the cap gives researchers a more comprehensive look at brain activity, they can also use a headband with sensors that is less cumbersome, Zalaquett explains.
Each section of the brain has distinctive brainwaves, which are measured in cycles per second, or hertz, at any given time. However, researchers usually refer to the predominant brainwave to describe a person’s mental state. For instance, a person who is concentrating may be "in beta," although some brain regions are reporting other kinds of brainwaves, from the lowest frequency--infra-low and delta, which range from less than.5 to 3 hertz --to the highest--gamma, which ranges from 38 to 42 hertz.
As brain-imaging technology gets faster and more portable, Penn State researchers are able to provide students access to the high-tech equipment in their classrooms and training facilities.
Getting the message
The technology may help improve anti-bullying campaigns, says SeriaShia Chatters , assistant professor of education and of clinical mental health counseling in schools and communities , who works with Zalaquett.
"Looking at the statistics, bullying is quite a part of our society, so for some reason, a lot of the anti-bullying public service announcements, or PSAs, that are reaching large numbers of individuals are not encouraging people to become involved," says Chatters. "Now, the people who see anti-bullying announcements may say--or self-report--that they watched the ads and that they are against bullying. But, why aren’t they getting involved? This technology may give us clues on how they are really reacting to the ads."
In an upcoming study, the researchers will watch how participants’ brains react while watching six different anti-bullying ads. The researchers want to find out whether people understand what role they are actually playing in bullying. According to Chatters, there is a spectrum of participation in bullying scenarios, from victim to bully and from defender to bystander.
"Prior to watching the PSA, we’re asking the individual what they perceive their participant role to be in bullying situations," says Chatters. "If the PSA is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, after the participants watch the PSA, the participant may self-report that their role has changed, but what we’re looking at is when they are watching the PSA, what do their brainwaves reveal about their reactions to the PSA? What is their immediate reaction to the specific situation?"
The brainwaves can give the researchers a glimpse into whether the participants show signs that they want to approach or avoid the bullying situation, she added.
"If they report that their participant role has changed, then their spontaneous reaction to specific scenes in the PSA or training video may correlate with this report of participant role change," says Chatters. "And, eventually, what we learn here could help to inform how we train individuals in bullying prevention and in other areas, as well."
Often, a person’s perception of his or her role is different from the actual role, says Zalaquett, which can make self-report data inaccurate. He added that in previous research on counselor ethics training, counselors continued to suffer ethical lapses despite training on identifying and navigating ethical dilemmas.
"Obviously, if you ask a person how they feel about ethics, they’ll probably give you the answer you want to hear," said Zalaquett. "But we want to find out, are they really paying attention to the lesson? Are they really getting this?"
The researchers hope that one day, in addition to passively watching brain states occur, the technology will be able to help people train their own brains.
"We may be able to take the next step and use this information to train the brain," says Zalaquett. "We could help people increase focus and concentration."
Zalaquett and Chatters will be conducting several rounds of experiments over the summer and hope to report their findings next year.