Article: Brain training in schools?

PRACTICAL ETHICS, University of Oxford

Published March 22, 2014 | By Joshua Shepherd

Neurofeedback works like this: you are hooked up to instruments that measure your brain activity (usually via electroencephalography or functional magnetic resonance imaging) and feed it back to you via auditory or visual feedback. The feedback represents the brain activity, and gives you a chance to modulate it, much as you might modulate the movements of your hand given visual or haptic feedback about its activity. What is interesting about the use of neurofeedback is it appears to train people to exercise some control over brain activity related to cognitive and mood-related processes. In other words, neurofeedback might potentially allow agents to modify the activity in their brains such that mood, attentional capacity, and other mental functions improve.

The connection between the relevant brain activity – e.g., the training of ‘slow cortical potentials’ or the voluntary increase of beta band activity and the decrease of ‘theta band activity’ (see Gevensleben et al. 2009) – and the improvement of cognitive functions like attention is not extremely well understood. But the connection is promising. A recent randomized controlled trial amongst school children found that neurofeedback training was associated with improvements in the symptoms of ADHD, and that the improvements remained 6 months after training ended (Steiner et al. 2014). (for an accessible summary of the relevant results, by Boston Globe health reporter Deborah Kotz, see here).

It looks like neurofeedback is a potentially useful and non-intrusive tool for human enhancement.

The usual caveats about side-effects and cost of implementation apply, of course: we need a better understanding of the specific effects of neurofeedback training, as well as possible side-effects. But given that neurofeedback training depends in part on our understanding of human cognition, and on the quality of brain measurement tools, it is plausible that we will in the future (perhaps quite soon) have low-cost and more effective neurofeedback techniques than we currently have. It is also plausible – although not guaranteed – that this kind of technique will be useful for more than ADHD treatment. It might be that such techniques promote self-control and well-being quite generally.

Should we view the application of such techniques as a luxury, available to those willing to pay? Or are we as a society obligated to provide such techniques for our children? Assuming it is effective enough to justify whatever costs are associated, should brain training be a normal part of public schooling?

I think so. If readers disagree, I’d like to hear why.

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