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Meet Team EEG

EEG print out background with a illustration of a man sitting with his head in his hands in a yellow shirt and blue pants, a black sqribble is behind his head

Team EEG is part of the Neosensory  Community Research Program.
 Neosensory is excited about exploring the frontiers of science and technology. As part of this effort, we have launched the Community Research Program, which aims to bring like-minded people together from around the world and across skill sets to work on projects with real-world impact and expand the knowledge domain of sensory addition, augmentation, and substitution.  Learn more here or dive right in and sign up to join a team.

The past two years of the pandemic have led to seismic changes in how we perceive ourselves. As the world came to a screeching halt, it gave us, or rather forced upon us, the opportunity to be alone with our own thoughts. A lack of external distractions meant we had to look inward. For many of us who have neglected this journey, this wasn’t always pleasant. Tough questions may come up.  Am I really happy with my job? Should I stay with my partner? Do I really need to finish my degree? When such questions come up, our brains have differing strategies to deal with them. In some cases, we take the challenge head-on: we ask ourselves why we are unhappy, and the answer appears, leading us to make a change for the better. However, in many cases, the answer isn’t always there. In these cases, we may start to think of the many options we have to solve the issue. If I quit my job, will I find another one? What if I never want to go back to work? Will I ever find a job that makes me happy? Will I ever be happy?

Can you see what the problem is with the above way of thinking? Rather than making progress towards our goal, we have strayed further from it, entering some type of spiral that keeps going deeper and deeper. This type of repetitive thinking, referred to as rumination,  can be highly detrimental to our well-being. In fact, many researchers think that rumination may be an underlying cause of many common mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Not only that, rumination may be a precipitating factor, in that it increases our risk for eventually developing a mental illness the more we engage in it. 

Given the risks, a way of detecting and stopping ruminative thinking is of extreme importance. Not only does it impact our current well-being, but serves as a prophylactic to prevent future risk for mental illness! So, how do we go about this? Ideally, we would be able to sense when we are in a ruminative cycle and snap out of it before it’s too late! But how can we develop this sense? The answer proves to be quite difficult since the sense must be internal. Luckily, research that measures our brain’s electrical activity has shown that rumination can lead to alterations in neural activity patterns. This activity can be picked up using electroencephalography or EEG (see more below). What if there was a way to translate this change in activity into signals that we could sense, and ‘learn’ to detect rumination? We hope to do exactly that by pairing the signals from EEG into vibrating feedback you can feel using the Neosensory band. We hope that through enough training, individuals may be able to develop an ambient sense of their own ruminative thinking, and be able to escape it before it’s too late. 

Background

Defining Rumination

Though it has been widely studied, there is no current consensus on exactly what rumination is. A simple definition of repetitive thinking doesn’t work as it overlaps with many other cognitive constructs. For example, intrusive thoughts, worry, anxiety, depression all include repetitive thinking. Similarly, there can be positive aspects to repetitive thinking such as nostalgia and reflection. How does rumination differ from the above? As with many cognitive processes, it may be impossible and unwise to look for a unique signature. However, a general consensus is that rumination occurs as a coping mechanism when one’s goals are not met. Therefore, rumination is a reaction to a lack of goal progress. Unsurprisingly, the lack of progress towards a goal is unsatisfactory, prompting us to look for solutions. 

In cases where the solution is obvious, there may be no need to rack our brains. However, in cases where it’s not, there lurks a danger to enter into a repetitive cycle of thought. Specifically, ruminative thinkers tend to be pessimistic,  dwelling on the negative outcomes. This strategy prevents further action, as the individual becomes convinced that there may be no real solution, and that they are doomed. In turn, they are left exhausting options in their head that all inevitably fail. For example, say you had a big interview for a job, which you thought went well, however you have not heard back. As time passes, you begin to unravel, thinking of all of the possible strategies you could have taken to prevent this failure. However, notice that since the event has occurred, no strategy can change this outcome, instead repeatedly thinking about what could have been only leads us to dwell on the negative. 

Why do this? If we know that the solution doesn’t exist, or is not obvious, isn’t it easy to simply stop thinking about it? Unfortunately, it appears that the decision to ruminate or not is in our control. Specifically, rumination may be an involuntary problem solving strategy. Research shows that individuals who are more likely to ruminate also tend to be worse at problem-solving and emotional regulation. Furthermore, research shows that rumination may be an automatic coping mechanism to avoid negative affect – if only you can figure out what you did wrong, you won’t have to feel bad any more! Therefore rumination is a maladaptive strategy. 

The downstream harms of rumination cannot be understated. Researchers suggest that ruminative thinking underlies both physical and psychological ailments. Increased rumination is associated with anger, depression, anxiety, OCD, intrusive thoughts. In addition, there appears to be a connection between alcohol abuse and rumination as well. 

Thankfully, there is a way out. Research shows that mindfulness training is effective in reducing rumination. Furthermore, certain meditative states serve as a buffer to rumination. The challenge therefore is to increase one’s awareness of rumination when it occurs so that it can be addressed. 

A Brief Overview of EEG

Neurons in our brain communicate through synapses, junctions where neurotransmitters can pass from one neuron to another. The passage of these neurotransmitter molecules leads to electrical changes within the receiving neurons, what is called post-synaptic activity. EEG or Electroencephalogram is a technique that tries to measure the extent of this electrical activity.

Electroencephalogram word meaning break down electro to electrical, encephalo to brain and gram for picture

It is important to point out that this electrical activity measured by EEG is not reflective of all synapses in the brain. EEG measures activity from a group or ensemble of neurons, not single neurons themselves. Specifically, these groups of neurons reside in the outer layer of our brain, the cerebral cortex. Though this activity may reflect aspects of subcortical activity,  unfortunately, EEG doesn’t have good spatial resolution, the ability for it to tell us how deep the signal is coming from.

Regardless of these limitations, this technique has been vastly influential in neuroscience. This is because of its temporal resolution, it allows measurement of rapid changes in electrical activity that other other techniques may not. Also, an EEG system may cost much less than other methods. Therefore, this method can be extremely useful for applications where a portable way to capture brain activity is needed, such as for brain machine interfaces. 

Image shows the layer between scalp and brain to illustrate how brain signals reach the eeg electrode.
Source: Bear, 2001, ( p.637)

The portability of EEG also makes it an ideal tool for the wearable enthusiast. In fact, there exist many commercially available EEG headsets,  as well as some reasonably affordable research grade headsets. Incorporating EEG in wearable projects opens an entirely new dimension of data otherwise inaccessible. In particular, a new avenue for biofeedback opens up, we may be able to observe our mental states in real time and take certain actions that influence and modify this mental state. For example, one may be able to aid meditative states by measuring them through an EEG. In a sense, our goal in this project is to employ the same logic backwards, we want to be able to detect when an individual is in a ruminative state so that we can help divert them. In future blog posts we will dive deeper into the EEG signals of rumination. 

Sensemaking

Humans are conventionally regarded to have access to five senses – taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound. A naive approach may suggest that each sense is specialized and cannot be replaced or modified. However, decades of neuroscience research shows that our senses are highly malleable. For example, those who are born congenitally blind are able to use their tactile and auditory senses for spatial navigation. This ability is accompanied by a functional reorganization at the neural level as well. Therefore, our brains are able to adapt to different sense inputs, commonly referred to as sensory substitution

However, a more radical idea is sensory addition, (see David Eagelman’s TED talk). In this scenario, the goal is to expand our sensory space by adding new senses. For example, we could measure the temperature of our surroundings and feed it to our body as a signal that can be either felt, heard, or seen. Research shows that over time, individuals can be trained to develop new senses on top of their existing ones. This opens a very exciting avenue for wearable enthusiasts. What if we could develop a sense for our glucose levels, or for our blood pressure?  Imagine instead of looking at your wearable screen, you could feel what the wearable is reporting! How may we go about doing this?

This question is the motivation behind the various Neosensory devices, including the ones we will be using in our project. By using these devices, which can receive external signals and transmit vibrotactile signals as a result, we hope to be able to create a new sense for rumination. Research shows that with enough training, it may be possible to develop an implicit sense of the incoming signal. Our hope therefore is that data from EEG can be converted into a vibrotactile signal that is transmitted through a Neosensory device to the individual. Over time, the individual may begin to recognize the underlying patterns in this signal and connect them to their own internal state. This would allow the individual to build a sense for something that was previously invisible to them, their own mental state!

Project Roadmap

An ambitious project such as this with many moving parts requires that we move slowly. Our team understands that the ultimate goal of this project may require many intermediate steps. Our goal is to pursue these steps in an “open-building environment”, sharing our thought process with the world and developing and using open-source tools in order to foster collaboration. In turn, below we present a very rough roadmap on how we plan to take on this project.

The project involves three distinct parts. We list them below, with further sub-goals and tasks. Our hope is to make concurrent progress on these parts through collaboration between different members of our team. Ideally, progress on one front should not be limited by another, and that progress should ultimately provide the milieu for other researchers and enthusiasts to carry the torch forward.  

1. Understanding rumination

  • A literature review to develop a functional and behavioral definition of rumination
  • Compiling a list of questionnaires and measures to measure rumination
  • Looking for examples in cognitive behavioral therapy for detecting altered mental states
  • Identifying common triggers to rumination

2.Capturing the EEG signal

  • Obtaining a commercially available EEG device
  • Establishing a method to reliably measure and capture real-time EEG data from the device
  • Identifying brain states associated with ruminative thinking, especially as measured by EEG
  • Reliably inducing and measuring brain activity associated with ruminative thinking
  • Preprocessing and cleaning raw EEG data to be sent to vibrotactile device

3. Vibrotactile Feedback Mechanism

  • Using a commercially available feedback device such as a Neosensory band and or a ‘DIY’ device using microcontrollers and motors
  • Developing an interface for capturing incoming EEG data
  • Developing an algorithm to convert EEG data into a vibrotactile signal

As we progress through this project, we expect this roadmap to change drastically. However, our hope is that by keeping an open building process, we can share both our successes and pitfalls.

Meet the team

Emilio Bazan Sanchez

Emilio Bazan is a fist year undergraduate from Mexico City at National Autonomous University of Mexico majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Neuroscience, he thinks everyday on ways we can enhance our condition and works towards a future where we can engineer experience directly trough neurotechnology, making more meaningful and richer lives, giving us the ability to solve increasingly complex problems, augmenting our sensory capacity, and even enhancing the way we relate to each other. Everything we think, hate or love is a physical experience in our brain, and we are in a very special time where we will be able to alter that hopefully in an ethical direction

Hassan Aleem

Hassan Aleem is a current Post-Doc at Loyola University studying the social basis of aesthetic preferences. He is a maker and tinkerer by nature. Hassan is passionate about leveraging technology and behavior to create novel solutions. He has previous experience working with haptic devices and has done research involving sensory substitution and sensory augmentation. Through the Neosensory Community Development program, Hassan hopes to collaborate with peers from multiple disciplines to tackle challenging problems

Juan Francisco Pazmiño

Juan Francisco Pazmiño is a 6th year Medical Student from Quito, Ecuador. He is currently a Research Assistant at NEURALL, an Ecuador-UK based Research Group focused on neurological diseases. Juan has a strong interest in neurosurgery and the development of neuroprostheses

Vatsal Parikh

Vatsal is currently based in the D.C. area and has a background in software development as well as some experience in conducting psychology research. By participating in this project, he hopes to further explore his interest in the topic of sensory substitution while gaining practice with programming and creating functionality for hardware such as the Buzz.

Refrences

M. F. Bear, B. W. Connors, and M. A. Paradiso. Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. Baltimore: Lippincott, 2001

Smith, Jeannette M., and Lauren B. Alloy. “A roadmap to rumination: A review of the definition, assessment, and conceptualization of this multifaceted construct.” Clinical psychology review 29.2 (2009): 116-128.

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