By Bobby Azarian
Many of us have our special ways of dealing with our feelings and emotions. For instance, when we are feeling stressed we might calm our nerves by focusing attention on our breathing. If we have a throbbing toothache, we might try to ease the pain through a meditative technique. And when we are feeling down, we may cheer ourselves up by imagining ourselves in our ‘happy place’. Those who’ve tried similar strategies know they often work, but with varying degrees of success.
Now imagine if you could see what was happening inside your brain as you experienced emotions and sensations such as pain, anxiety, depression, fear, and pleasure – all in real-time. Suddenly, why you feel the way you feel might not be such a mystery, and the effectiveness of the little mental techniques you use to deal with daily life would be clearly visible.
Through practice, you can learn to strengthen control over the mind similar to how a weightlifter targets a specific muscle group
That’s the idea behind a new technique known as “real-time fMRI”. By receiving specific visual feedback about brain activity while executing mental tricks and strategies, we can learn to consciously control our emotions, sensations and cravings as if they were being manipulated by a volume knob on a stereo. Through practice, you can learn to strengthen control over the mind similar to how a weightlifter targets a specific muscle group – and it raises the tantalising possibility of a future where we can train advanced mental abilities far beyond our own today.
The first demonstration that real-time fMRI could be a powerful tool came in 2005, with a study where researchers taught people how to control pain. Eight people lay in the scanner while subjected to a painful hot sensation on their skin. The researchers showed them a virtual flame to represent activation in the rostral ACC, a brain region involved in pain processing. Through various cognitive strategies, such as “attend toward or away from the painful stimulus” and “attempt to perceive the stimulus as high or low intensity”, participants quickly learned to control the size of the flame, thereby directly altering the level of electrical activation in the pain-responsive region.