Image if you had a piece of wearable technology that could "listen to your brain". And use what it hears to help you to track your concentration while you study.
This might sound a bit like science fiction. But it's actually available now with the Clarity software and headset from the Nervanix Corporation.
It might surprise you to know that the technology behind it, known as EEG, is actually about 100 years old.
Dr Miller explains how it all works in an interview on the Learning Capacity podcast.
He points out the significant implications for education. And how this new technology can enhance learning for all students involved in high value learning.
Listen to the podcast episode:
- EEG (electroencephalography)
People & organisations mentioned
- Nervanix Clarity
- Nervanix Insight
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 52 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Tech wearable Nervanix Clarity can monitor your brain in real time. Dr Steve Miller explains.
Colin Klupiec: Steve Miller, welcome to the conversation.
Dr Steve Miller: Hi, how are you?
Colin: I'm very well, thank you.
Now, you're working on some really interesting hardware. Let me see if I've got this straight just in a very broad sense. You're developing a headset that someone can wear and track their actual levels of concentration in real time. Have I got that even remotely correct?
Steve: Yes, you do. The technology, the actual...the technology has advanced quite a bit as technology does advance. But its history is probably a hundred years old.
In most hospitals around the world, we've heard of EEG systems. In the States, when a baby is born, they can't leave the hospital until they've had their auditory system tested, and we do that by presenting clicks to the baby, while we record their...what's called auditory brainstem response with a sensor placed on their skin, you know, on their head.
And so measuring that EEG, that electroencephalography, listening to the brain, so to speak, is more than a hundred years old. And we do it in hospitals, in clinics, and I've been doing it with companies for several years and setting up research labs to do that.
The real advance is that we've been able to bring that system down to a level where it's affordable as a consumer product. So something that isn't thousands of dollars, but is a hundred dollars.
Colin: So I guess the reason why I suggested earlier that I was trying to just even get this remotely correct, is because I guess for the average person in the street, if you walked up to them and said, "Here, put on this thing that looks like something that you might have associated with a SONY Walkman from 20 years ago."
Then I told them, "Hey, this is going to measure your attention, it's going to measure your brain waves," they'll probably look at you a bit strange and go, "Are you for real? Is this a science fiction story?"
But what you're suggesting is this has been going on for a long time and, in fact, it's a lot less science fiction than what people might think?
Elite athletes, the military, businesses all use neuroscience & brain activity to make decisions
Steve: Yeah. The interesting part is when people start to learn that elite athletes, individuals who are in special divisions of the military, companies are using neuroscience and brain activity to make strategic business decisions about new product concepts, new mission statements, what do people think about their brand, testing new products, the idea that we can measure people's attention and beyond that, although I don't do it right now, but attention and emotion and memory skills is really...sounds very science fiction.
But it's very much in the real world and it's very much available and there's neuroscience labs around the world that work for companies five days or seven days a week, and that's what they do. With people's explicit knowledge and consent forms, they put sensors on your scalp, and they listen to your brain.
In your case, as you pointed out, we now have one that you can put on yourself and you can also take it off. And you can put it back on and take it off. But you can own it. And so we've taken something that...at the high end for a medical centre or for a Fortune 100 company, they spend thousands of dollars on a very sensitive system.
Now we have something where a single sensor or a few sensors can be purchased for the range of $100 to $300. And you can get those from a variety of companies. It's not just me working in this area. It's an area that I think is kind of...I won't say it's exploding, but it's taking off in Australia and the States. And maybe some research labs in Korea and Japan are probably leading the way.
Recording brain activity and amplifying it into a digital signal to measure attention
Colin: Now, I'm not asking you this question to just lay your blueprints out to the world on your product, but I must say, I'm very, very curious. Can you explain to us in simple terms, and I'm sure the listeners are just dying to know this, how does this thing work?
Steve: So the way EEG works...and again, when you think about it, the idea that in 1925 somebody was able to record and they were quite fascinated that they could actually record brain activity from an awake-behaving person without having to do surgery or make them do anything other than put a sensor on their skin.
So what happens is while you're thinking, the brain is emitting electrical signals. They're very small, they're much smaller than a watch battery. And so what we do is we have equipment that listens to that activity, samples it, you know, captures it and amplifies it so we can measure it more easily.
And a computer is syncing that information and doing some maths on it to pull out the frequencies. The way we can pass light through a prism and see the rainbow go through it, we can do a similar thing with brain activity, so we get this complex signal.
When you're sleeping, we have a very slow brain response, with nice, slow waves, because the brain isn't as active. Of course, when we go through a dream state, we have what's called REM activity, and then the brain becomes highly active and looks very similar to the awake-behaving brain.
Because in many ways, the brain is reliving parts of the day. And if we don't have that, we don't learn because our memory hasn't been consolidated.
So we have...believe it or not, if we want to spend more money on a headset, we actually can record memory formation in real time. Isn't that wild? So we can actually know if you have a chance at remembering something or not.
Colin: That's...well, I think the description that you used of "wild" is pretty close. I mean, I'm sitting here just sort of wondering what the implications of this are.
So during this interview, I'm sitting here with a pair of headphones on, and I'm just wondering, if I had the headset on, would it feel similar to having a pair of headphones on?
Steve: Yeah, like headphones, you know when they're on. But if I put headphones on versus an EEG sensor, and I put the EEG sensor inside where the band is that goes on your hair or on your head, you would know that there was something there.
But after 15 or 20 seconds, you wouldn't know if it was on or...you wouldn't know that it was there. You forget about it. It is that light, it is that thin.
The cutting-edge stuff, again, that's a little bit more expensive, actually is like a bandage. I mean, it's actually a foil. If it fell on your hair, it wouldn't press your hair down. I mean, it's that light.
Colin: So when this thing is actually working, can you tell that something is measuring your brain activity? Is there any feedback to the human about that?
Steve: No, it's completely passive. So you don't know if it's on or not. I mean, you know if it's physically on, like your headphones are on, right? But I would say the same thing to you about a microphone or your headset.
If I turn your microphone on when you're talking into a microphone, you don't know if the microphone is on or not until you hear the feedback.
Colin: Yeah, that's true. And that's caught many people out, I can assure you.
Steve: Right. And so...but the technology is almost identical. We're taking the vibrations from your voice, we're sampling them, we're amplifying them or playing them through a system on the other end so that it can, again, create turbulence in the air that ends up being heard as human speech.
Well, in our case, we're taking brain activity, which is too quiet for you to hear with your ear, and we're amplifying it like we amplify your voice and we make it into a digital signal.
And then we're doing maths on it, and then we're taking that maths and we're calculating the different parts of your brain systems that have their own frequency, and so the way you would tune in a radio.
So I don't know what your favourite radio station is where you live in Australia, but let's say it's AM 100, or AM 1000.
Colin: That's a good name. I like that.
Steve: Okay. So let's say your attention system is called AM 30. And if you turn in your AM 50 station, you'll get a different brain network talking to you, one that does higher-frequency stuff. So when we look at the sleeping brain, we see slow waves.
The minute that you open your eyes and start to process what's in front of you, the waves get less slow, and they start to look jittery. Why? Because all that information is now being processed. And so that processing causes little squiggles on that slow wave, and we can measure that.
We can measure it as energy, and we can also calculate how intense it is. Well, as you can imagine, that intensity of that wave form from the slow wave to the fast wave is a measure of attention.
Colin: Yeah, okay. So how does the user interface with the object? I mean, I've got this fanciful idea in my head of wearing the band and then looking at my iPhone and tracking my attention. Is that what we're talking about?
Tracking attention when people use computers for learning
Steve: Yeah, so...exactly. So anything that you're doing, if we can figure out what you're looking at or figure out what you're touching, we can link that brain measure of attentional energy to the interaction. And so what we've been doing is we...so many people use their computers for learning.
So if you're reading something on your phone or tablet or your computer screen, every time you turn the page, all we do is we just record, "Page turned." And then when you turn to the next page, we'll say that last page gets an attention score of X.
Now, again, this is how we are doing it. Other people could do it slightly differently. If you turn the page too quickly, we're going to assume you didn't read it, you were just turning the page. If you spend too much time on the page, we'll note that, so that you understand that you might have actually daydreamed. Right?
You may have stopped processing it. But, again, what we're trying to help you with is kind of give you a DVR for your own learning experience. We're not going to say, you know, Colin doesn't have good attention, what we're going to say is, "Colin, you didn't find this book engaging."
Colin: I like that.
Steve: You know why? Because you drifted off.
Steve: But the key is, and I'm sure you've had this experience, we've all had this experience, we pick up a book that we maybe read three or four days ago and we say to ourselves, "Oh, I think I read to here, page 308, because it looks kind of used till that page." And I look and I remember some of the reading.
And then I start reading and I read three or four more pages and I go, "Oh, I actually remember this part happening, so I must have read to here." And so we don't always know the spot that we left the book.
But in this case, I have a measure, an exact kind of brain activity, so you can go back and maybe page 17 through 21 you really didn't read too deeply. Now you have a choice.
And you know, I had an eighth-grader who said, he said, "Hey, if I need to know that stuff, I have to go back and re-read that." And that's what we want to give people the opportunity to do.
We're not going to tell you, "Hey, you shouldn't have drifted off there," but we want you to know you drifted off so that you have an opportunity to revisit that information.
Colin: That's fascinating.
Learning better by understanding what you paid attention to, or what you didn't
Steve: And we found that people...as you can imagine, big shock, people have done better when they had that information than people who don't have that information.
Colin: Sure, yeah. I'm just really wanting to ask this question. It's been in the back of my mind since you've been talking about it. So will there be an app for that?
Two attention monitoring programs to help your revise, review and to alert you when you "zone out"
Steve: So right now it's a software program that you can download, and so we have two programs, one that's available now and one that we'll announce for the first time in the world, that we have forthcoming. So the first one we have is connected to your specific pages or to videos that you're watching.
You are shown where you need to study again because your attention declined
So you can look at what second or what page you weren't engaged with the content. And you can go back and study that to your benefit. And we can give you average scores, so you can say to yourself, "Wow, when I'm reading, I'm not as focused as I need to be and I seem to really learn well from video. I find it more engaging."
Now, as much as I'd love to, I wish that everything I had to learn was in video form, but it's not, so I have to learn that I've got to maybe close my door, turn my phone off, tell my family, "Hey, don't bother me. I really need to learn this and this is complicated stuff."
I'm trying to read another scientist's complicated theory. I want to understand it and I have to teach it. So I can't just kind of appreciate it, I have to really know it. And so I can organise myself to do that.
Then we have a second product, because we had so many people use that and say, "Well, I want to make my attention better, how can I do that? And I don't necessarily want it to be page-specific."
Your screen's brightness changes when your attention changes
And so working with a scientist who's at Duke University, David Rabiner, we've now incorporated the same model so that the brightness of your screen will change as a function of your attention. So we can give you immediate feedback that says, "Colin, you're kind of dozing off here."
And how do you know it? Because the page just got a little dimmer. Not so much that it's bothersome, but that you now know. And if your screen is really bright, you're focused. And so it gives you that immediate feedback.
So in the first case, I didn't want to bother you because I want you to read however you read. I don't want to disturb you so that you're thinking to yourself, "Oh, I have to focus more," and you're not actually reading the content.
But then there were people who said, "Well, I actually want that feedback," so we were kind of like, "Okay, if customers want the feedback, we're going to give them a second option."
So now they have something that is agnostic to whatever they're doing on their computer. You can surf the web, you can download this talk and listen to it. If you want to listen to it second by second, you can download the product called Clarity, and it will tell you when you were more or less engaged with this interview.
Or you can sit there and you can have your screen get brighter or dimmer while you focus your attention and give you feedback. That's the product called Insight. So you're actually building that attention system the way you might try and build your muscles.
You're going to exercise them for a short time period. No matter what you're doing, you're saying, "I want to make sure my screen stays bright for the next 20 minutes."
Colin: Steve Miller, thanks very much for your time.
Steve: Thank you.
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