Scientific American™ Article: Neurofeedback Increases Affection, Builds Empathy
Squabbling with your spouse lately? Someday, couples therapy could mean watching your own brain activity to train your compassionate side
Too many heated arguments rely on the cliché “I’m not a mind reader” to excuse one individual’s ignorance of another’s mental states. But now scientists based at the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro believe they can amplify affection by letting individuals read their own minds.
The approach relies on neurofeedback, in which people can see and respond to their own real-time brain activity. Although the therapeutic utility and mechanism of neurofeedback are contested, proponents of the process generally suggest that by observing one’s brain responses a person cansubsequently modify them.
In this case the research group, led by IDOR cognitive neuroscientist Jorge Moll, focused on brain activity associated with affiliative emotions, or the warm and fuzzy—but not romantic—sensation one experiences when seeing a beloved friend or family member. To contrast this feeling with other emotional states, the researchers first asked their 24 volunteers to prepare three personal anecdotes: a proud moment, an episode full of affectionate feelings and a neutral but social scenario such as supermarket shopping. Pride and tenderness are complex social emotions, and so the researchers reasoned that comparing results from these two, along with a neutral control, could help clarify what brain activity was associated with affiliative emotion specifically.
Next, subjects had to recall these occasions while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) chamber and viewing a screen that showed a circle that would ripple and change shape. For half the subjects, the circle reflected ongoing changes in brain activity. The other half saw a randomly morphing ring described as a focal point for their visual attention. During a series of trials the researchers repeatedly cued participants with the words “proud,” “neutral” or “tender” and instructed them to relive the related memory in as much detail and emotional intensity as possible.
The researchers contrasted the data from tender, neutral and proud responses across trials to identify brain activity most related to affiliative feelings for each subject. They then assessed how much the brain response in each trial resembled this typical affiliative activity. The group given random visual feedback showed no significant difference in affiliative activity over trials. By contrast, subjects who received neurofeedback showed significantly stronger affiliative brain activity in their last trials compared with their first ones. In other words, something about seeing their brain’s changes intensified that response over subsequent trials.
To better contextualize their results, Moll and colleagues also analyzed the relevant brain regions for tender feelings across subjects. As they report in PLoS ONE on May 21, the brain regions involved included the frontopolar and septohypothalamic areas, both linked previously to affectionate feelings in earlier research.
The findings, suggests University of California, San Diego, cognitive scientist Jaime Pineda, are fairly convincing. The study is “very interesting and consistent with other fMRI neurofeedback results,” he says. Pineda does caution that the researchers could have improved their experiment by providing a comparison group that received false feedback, which would act as a control for differences in the experience of subjects expecting real as opposed to random visual information.
Moll believes there are multiple clinical implications. Affiliative emotion is a component of fondness, empathy and compassion. Training tenderness could benefit feuding couples and groups, boost empathy and compassion or even assist individuals with more severe antisocial personalities.
But much needs to be clarified first. It is still unknown how long the training effects last and whether they will work in other settings. Ranganatha Sitaram, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida (also unconnected to the study) has conducted similar neurofeedback studies and is cautiously optimistic about their practical promise. “Certainly this could be useful clinically,” Sitaram says. “But outside of the lab the effects of these types of techniques are hoped for but still not established.”