Can We Brain-Train Our Emotions? A New Study Suggests We Can

A Brown University study suggests it may be possible to train your brain’s automatic emotional responses — and that it may improve your experience of life.

Oct 24, 2016 · 5 min read

You’re standing in the grass and look down to see a brown rattlesnake six inches from your right foot. If you’re like most people, you won’t bend down and give it a loving pat on the head — you’ll feel your heart beating in your ears as you walk backwards to safety and warn your friends of the danger. (Or you’ll freeze or have a panic, depending on how intense your fear of snakes is.)

Your body’s response is a cascade that originates from your brain: it perceives the snake, and then certain parts of the brain activate and trigger your raised heartbeat and the muscles that help you walk away, among other things. That activation pattern happens without your conscious effort, and it looks different if you are afraid of snakes than if you are a snake trainer who isn’t intimidated in the slightest, and even feels fond toward them.

A team of scientists at Brown is questioning whether it’s possible to change your involuntary brain responses to things in the world, through brain training. That is, is it possible to make your brain’s snake-response activation pattern look less like a phobia and more like a snake trainer’s? Perhaps this could result in a little relief from intense fears, traumas, or anxieties.

The team has been researching this idea with a brain training method in a relatively new field called neurofeedback, which is a type of biofeedback.

Biofeedback gives you information about your body’s physical functions displayed in real time (via video or audio, for example). Biofeedback therapies hinge around the idea that a feedback loop can help you gain more awareness and control over your body’s involuntary functions. For example, you could hook up electrical sensors to your skin to measure your heart rate, sweat, and temperature. You can see your steady measurements on a screen, and when you see a picture of a snake, those measures shoot up. If you start using breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques, you’ll see the measures go down again. Through this therapy you may learn some techniques to control your body’s involuntary stress response.

Neurofeedback is a similar idea with sensors that measure your brain activity. To date, neurofeedback trainings have been somewhat marred by ’70s woo-woo therapists that claim you can achieve a Zen-like state with electrical EEG readers that measure and visualize your brainwaves. More modern neurofeedback research is still in the early days — studies to date have been limited, while challengers have shown that these therapies’ effectiveness hinges on how much people believe in them (and have very little to do with actual brainwave changes).

But the Brown team’s new study, published in September 2016, is much more promising. And it should be noted that the participants didn’t know they were undergoing neurofeedback brain training at all.

The researchers showed participants hundreds of photos of people’s faces and asked them to rate them on a scale from 1 to 10: 1 for dislike, 5 for neutral, and 10 for like. Meanwhile, they scanned the participants’ brains with fMRI to measure their brains’ involuntary activation patterns as they saw each face. By gathering so much activation data, the scientists were able to learn each individual’s signature brain pattern for “like,” “dislike,” and “neutral.”

Next, they put the (unknowing) participant through a neurofeedback training in an fMRI machine with a neurofeedback loop that had a screen display. First they showed a photograph on the screen of a face that the participant felt neutral about — say, a 5 out of 10.

Then they cleared the face from the screen and displayed a seemingly unrelated disk. They asked the subjects to make the disk grow with their minds.

What? Make it grow with their minds? The participants in the study certainly didn’t know how to do that.

For one hour per day for three days, the subjects struggled to make the disk grow. Unbeknownst to them, the disk would get bigger if their brain made their signature “like” activation pattern. They would be rewarded for this activation with a slightly bigger disk — even though they weren’t consciously aware of this relationship.

Later, the scientists showed all the neutrally-rated faces to the participants again and asked them to rate them once more. Participants rated the faces that received positive training slightly higher on the “Like” scale from 1 to 10. If a face got 5 out of 10 before, now they rated it 5.6 out of 10 on average. This preference lasted at least three months.

(Another subgroup got “dislike” brain pattern training and they showed slightly negative rating changes, while a third control subgroup didn’t receive disk training at all and didn’t show any changes.)

It appears that changing a person’s preferences through associative training by linking a behavior and a reward can happen without them knowing they’re even doing a behavior. The study’s co-author, Takeo Watanabe of Brown University, explains that this neurofeedback training is promising: “Our brain functions are mostly based on associative processing, so association is extremely important. Now we know that this technology can be applied to induce associative learning.”

If it is indeed possible to change someone’s feelings and emotions about a stimulus by training their involuntary brain response to it, then bigger questions enter the picture. Can we reduce a fear of snakes, or treat PTSD, or alter habitual negative thought patterns that contribute to depression and anxiety? The Brown research team’s ultimate goal is to develop this neurofeedback technique into an effective psychological therapy tool, and this facial preference study is a small step in this direction.

It’s true that 0.6 change on a scale of 1–10 is small, and a three-month impact is not the same as a lifetime. But perhaps the technique could be more powerful if the participants received weeks of training instead of just three hours.

And, as Watanabe points out, “If someone develops a traumatic memory that makes him or her suffer, even a small reduction of the suffering would be helpful.” A little relief can go a long way, and we are just beginning to learn how much is under our control.

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