Weak Alpha Waves Prove Why You Suck at Halo

University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Kyle Mathewson and his colleagues discovered that they could predict how quickly a person would learn a new video game by looking at the electroencephalogram of the person’s brain at the start of play. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

There’s no doubt that some people are smarter than others. Einstein was living proof, as is Stephen Hawking. Of course, there are different kinds of intelligence too. Just because Mozart didn’t discover a fundamental relationship between mass and energy doesn’t mean that his proficiency is any less genius than Einstein’s. The same could be said for Rembrandt or countless others whose skills in their own niche far outpaced their peers.

That brings us to the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Are some people simply born predisposed to prominence in a certain field, or is it their experiences in early childhood up through insane amounts of practice that give rise to their abilities? And either way, are there differences in their brains that could be indicators of their potential?

That nature versus nurture debate may never be solved, but scientists at the University of Illinois have evidence for the latter question. By scanning people’s brains using an EEG while they learn to play a complex video game, the researchers could easily predict who would become the best players as time went on.

The video game in question isn’t Super Mario Brothers or anything else produced by Nintendo. It’s a game called Space Fortress developed by scientists for cognitive research. And the players weren’t proficient in it to begin with; nor were they proficient in any sort of video game, for that matter.

In the study, Kyle Mathewson, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, along with professors Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton, hooked the game newbies up to an EEG and sat them in front of the video game.

In particular, they were looking at the patterns of alpha waves – a type of brain wave that recent papers suggest inhibit areas of the cortex and/or play an active role in network coordination and communication. Of the 39 subjects, they found that subjects whose brain waves oscillated most powerfully in the alpha spectrum – about 10 times per second – when measured at the front of the head tended to learn at a faster rate than those whose brain waves oscillated with less power. The differences could predict at least half of one person’s improved performance over another.

Some theories of cognitive function state that concentration is the mind’s ability to force other unimportant processes aside, and this research seems to support that view. Alpha waves are associated with a person actively inhibiting certain cognitive functions in favor of others. Thus, those with stronger alpha waves can more easily put a straight jacket on unrelated thoughts and distractions, and learn a video game more quickly and easily.

Perhaps people could benefit by having their alpha wave strength increased. According to Mathewson, that is a distinct possibility. Alpha brain waves can be increased by giving positive feedback, and also strengthens with practice. In fact, those who improved the most on the video game also improved on reaction time and working memory.

So maybe there is something to the Big Brain Academy after all.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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