Meditation, Flying Robots and Yoga

Yoga is not a religion. It is a science, science of well-being, science of youthfulness, science of integrating body, mind and soul.”
― Amit Ray

Science fiction? No, just more evidence of the positive effects of meditation and yoga, this time in connection with brain computer interfaces.

Although it does have the makings of a pretty cool summer blockbuster.

Maybe starring Liam Neeson as a troubled undercover CIA agent.

Going deep undercover in Tibet to learn secret mediation techniques from the Tibetan resistance and use remote mind control to dismantle North Korean nuclear weaponsfrom afar…

This much is factual, though: research from the University of Minnesota has now shown that long term practitioners of yoga and meditation can learn to control a computer with their minds quicker and better than people with little or no yoga or meditation experience.

The research may lead to improvements in treatment of people who are paralyzed or have neurodegenerative diseases.

Imagining Hand Movements

36 participants were involved In the study. One group of 12 had at least one year of experience in yoga or meditation at least two times per week for one hour.

The second group was made up of 24 healthy volunteers with minimal to no yoga or meditation experience. Both groups were new to systems using the brain to control a computer.

Each group underwent three, two-hour experiments over four weeks. They wore a high tech, non-invasive cap over the scalp that picked up brain activity, and were asked to move a computer cursor across the screen by imagining left or right hand movements.

Yoga practice can make us more and more sensitive to subtler and subtler sensations in the body. Paying attention to and staying with finer and finer sensations within the body is one of the surest ways to steady the wandering mind. (39)”
― Ravi Ravindra

Those in the group with yoga or meditation experience were twice as likely to complete the brain-computer interface task by the end of 30 trials. They also learned three times faster than their counterparts for the left-right cursor movement experiments.

“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,” said lead researcher Bin He, a biomedical engineering. “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.”

Researchers are putting increasing focused on discovering ways to help physically disabled people who are paralyzed, have lost limbs, or suffer from diseases such as ALS or cerebral palsy. In such cases, brain function is maintained, but patients have to find a way to bypass muscular control to move a wheelchair, control an artificial limb, or control other devices.

Consistent and Reliable EEG Patterns

Professor He gained notoriety in his field in 2013 when members of his research team were able to demonstrate flying a robot with only their minds.

The researchers observed though, that not everyone can effortlessly learn to control a computer with their brains. Many people are unsuccessful in controlling the computer even after multiple attempts.

A consistent and reliable EEG brain signal may depend on an undistracted mind and sustained attention. Meditators have shown more distinctive EEG patterns than untrained participants, which may explain their success.

Professor He got the idea for the study more than five years ago.

When he began his brain-computer interface research, he noticed one woman participant who was much more successful than other participants at controlling the computer with her brain.

This woman, it turned out, had wide ranging experience with yoga and meditation, referred to by researchers as Mind-Body Awareness Training (MBAT).

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

What are Brain Computer Interfaces?

Brain computer interfaces (BCI), are direct communication pathways between the brain and an external device. BCIs are often directed at assisting, augmenting, or repairing human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.

Research on BCIs began in the 1970s at the University of California Los Angeles under a grant from the National Science Foundation. The papers published after this research also mark the first appearance of the expression brain–computer interface in scientific literature.

The field of BCI research and development has since focused primarily on neuroprosthetics applications that aim at restoring damaged hearing, sight and movement.

Thanks to the remarkable cortical plasticity of the brain, signals from implanted prostheses can, after adaptation, be handled by the brain like natural sensor or effector channels.

Following years of animal experimentation, the first neuroprosthetic devices implanted in humans appeared in the mid-1990s.

Kaitlin Cassady et al
The impact of mind-body awareness training on the early learning of a brain-computer interface
Technology 02, 254 (2014). DOI: 10.1142/S233954781450023X

Levine, SP; Huggins, JE; Bement, SL; Kushwaha, RK; Schuh, LA; Rohde, MM; Passaro, EA; Ross, DA; Elisevich, KV (2000).
A direct brain interface based on event-related potentials“.
IEEE transactions on rehabilitation engineering 8 (2): 180–5. doi:10.1109/86.847809.PMID 10896180