October 6, 2014

Yoga, Meditation Train Brains to Control Computers

If you meditate – as I do, in my own fashion – or do yoga regularly, the benefits may be greater than you thought.

A study published in the new journal TECHNOLOGY showed that people who often practice one of those two disciplines can condition their brains in ways that enable them to control a computer with their minds better and faster than people who have little experience with either.

Why does that matter?

As technology speeds forward, there are more systems that allow physically disabled people to control life-enhancing devices – like wheelchairs and artificial limbs – with their minds. Their bodies may not be able to manipulate those devices, but their brains are just fine.

Beneficiaries of new mind-computer technologies include people who are paralyzed; have lost hands, arms, or legs; or who suffer from physically debilitating diseases like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), cerebral palsy, and neurodegenerative diseases -- like Parkinson's.

Now we learn that any of these people who meditated or did yoga regularly are significantly more successful operating devices with only their minds.

How the Study Worked
In a study -- funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine -- biomedical engineers at the University of Minnesota recruited 36 people -- admittedly a very small sample – and put them into one of two groups.

The first group had practiced yoga or meditation at least two times a week for an hour for at least a year. In the second group were 24 healthy people with little or no yoga or meditation experience. All 36 were unfamiliar with brain-computer systems.

Over the course of four weeks, all 36 participated in three two-hour experiments during which they wore a “high-tech, non-invasive cap” over their heads to pick up brain activity. All subjects were asked to move a computer cursor across their computer screens only by imagining left or right hand movements.

Researchers reported that the 12 yoga / meditators were twice as likely to complete the brain-computer interface task within 30 trials. Those same 12 were also three times faster than their control-group counterparts.

Lead researcher Bin He -- a biomedical engineering professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and director of the University’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine – said:
In recent years, there has been a lot of attention on improving the computer side of the brain-computer interface, but very little attention to the brain side. This comprehensive study shows for the first time that looking closer at the brain side may provide a valuable tool for reducing obstacles for brain-computer interface success in early stages.
In 2013, professor He and his team demonstrated the ability to (I know, this sounds a little weird) fly a robot with their minds. During those tests, the researchers learned that not everybody could launch the robot.

The Power of an Undistracted Mind
The researchers also observed that subjects who could clear their minds and sustain attention were able to produce the kind of consistent, reliable electroencephalography (EEG) brain signals necessary to control the robot.

Professor He began his brain-computer interface work over five years ago. Early in his studies, he observed that a woman who had lots of experience with yoga and meditation was able to control the computer with her brain much better than the others subjects.

It was that particular observation that led the biomedical engineer to construct a study to determine if yoga or meditation did indeed increase people’s ability to control computers with their brains.

Professor He summed up his work: “Our ultimate goal is to help people who are paralyzed or have brain diseases regain mobility and independence. We need to look at all possibilities to improve the number of people who could benefit from our research.”

Just one more reason – in addition to all the other benefits I already receive –to keep my “quiet hour” meditations going.

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Here's the press release from the University of Minnesota announcing the study results.

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