Posted on Apr 01, 2009, 10 a.m.
By gary clark
Researchers have discovered that a distinct pattern of brain waves occurs a second before a mistake is made as a result of not paying attention.
In a study conducted jointly by the University of California, Davis, and the Donders Institute in the Netherlands, researchers studied the brain activity of 14 students who were recruited to take part in a test designed to measure attention levels while performing a monotonous task. As random numbers from one to nine flashed on a screen at two-second intervals, the participants were asked to hit a button as soon as any number, except five, appeared. The researchers found that even when a five flashed on the screen, the participants spontaneously hit the button an average of 40 percent of the time.
While the tests were being performed, the researchers used a recording technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure participants' brain activity. They discovered that approximately one second before the mistakes were made, alpha wave activity in the occipital region of the brain (back of the head) was about 25 percent stronger, and in the sensorimotor cortex (the middle region) exhibited a similar increase in the brain's mu wave activity.
Researchers also found that those errors triggered immediate changes in wave activity in the front region of the brain. This appeared to drive down alpha activity in the rear region. As Dr. Ali Dr Mazaheri, one of the members of the research team, explains, "It looks as if the brain is saying, 'Pay attention!' and then reducing the likelihood of another mistake."
Professor Nilli Lavie, of the Institute of Neurology at University College London, notes that the increase in alpha brain wave activity was often associated with sleepiness. And while she finds the study interesting, "Finding a practical application could prove difficult," she suggests. However, Dr. Mazaheri says that the research could be used to guide the development of attention-monitoring devices that could be used, for example, with air traffic controllers. He believes it may be possible to develop a wireless monitoring device that reads the brain waves of air traffic controllers as they work. The device could be designed to trigger an alert when alpha activity exceeds a threshold level. Similar approaches could be used in the development of new treatments for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
News Release: Brain waves foreshadow mistakes www.news.bbc.co.uk March 24, 2009