Here's How You Can Plant Feelings In People's Heads, Neuroscientists Show

It's not quite "Inception," but it's fascinating nonetheless.

13/09/2016 5:03 AM AEST | Updated 13/09/2016 5:03 AM AEST

Planting new emotions in unwitting people’s minds is probably nothing short of a superpower. And scientists have done just that.

Using a relatively new brain-training technique known as neurofeedback, scientists at Brown University were able to make people develop positive or negative feelings about photographs toward which they’d previously felt no strong emotions.

In other words, they induced feelings where there were none ― and without the study participants even becoming aware of it.

“We did not mean to develop a device that would be used for brainwashing,” Takeo Watanabe, a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Brown and a co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. Rather, the scientists wanted to see just how well the method of neurofeedback can work.

Neurofeedback has been gaining attention in recent years as a way to potentially help treat various mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurofeedback treatment involves monitoring a patient’s brain activity in real time as they experience different thoughts and feelings, and then helping the patient learn how to boost or reduce their own neural activity patterns to cope with distress.

For this study, which appeared last week in the journal PLOS Biology, researchers asked 24 study participants to look at a series of photographs of faces. The participants were asked to rate the faces from very negative to neutral to very positive. Meanwhile, the researchers used fMRI brain scans to measure the patterns of neural activity that corresponded to the different ratings.

“We thought that if our technique could change facial preference, we would be able to change many other functions, particularly those related to causes of mental diseases,” Watanabe said.

This is where the neurofeedback began. After the initial episode of face-rating, the participants were called back for a few more days of research.

As each participant lay inside a brain scanner, they were asked to play a game. First, the participant was shown a face he or she had previously rated as neutral. Then, a floating disk appeared on the display before them. The participant was asked to use his or her mind to try to make the disk bigger. If he or she could do it, they were told, they’d win money.

Of course, the participants had no idea how to use their minds to make a disk grow.

But unbeknownst to them, the disk was programmed to react to readings of participants’ brain activity. If the participants somehow happened to produce the neural activity that corresponded to feeling either negative or positive about a face, the disk grew and they were rewarded with more money.

So they did this over and over again.

Later on, all participants ― plus another group, who hadn’t played the disk-growing game ― were asked to rate the neutral faces again. This time, those people who had gone through neurofeedback by playing the game gave a slightly positive or negative rating to the same faces they’d rated as neutral before.

What’s notable here is that when each participant was lying there in the brain scanner, trying to make a disk grow bigger with their mind, they had no idea that positive or negative feelings about faces had anything to do with it. The disk got bigger when the person’s brain activity indicated “positive feeling about a face” or “negative feeling about a face,” but none of the participants were told about this connection. They each had to stumble onto it themselves ― and when they did, they did so at an unconscious level. In other words, the participants were changing their own brain activity, not having it changed for them.

As neurofeedback techniques become better understood, they might one day be used to help people change their own brain activity in other contexts. For example, a person with PTSD might be able to undergo neurofeedback therapy and learn to develop neutral feelings about traumatic memories.

To be clear, there’s still much we don’t know about neurofeedback. There are probably limits to its effectiveness, and even if it proves helpful to some people, the effects may wear off over time. Still, researchers are hopeful that it can be used to do some good.

“If someone develops a traumatic memory that makes him or her suffer, even a small reduction of the suffering would be helpful,” Watanabe said in a press release.

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