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What if you could instantly learn to do a task, like playing piano or Kung Fu, simply by watching a computer screen? It may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie like the Matrix, but research coming out of Boston University suggests that this effortless method of learning may exist in the future.
The technique is called "Decoded Neurofeedback," or "DecNef," and it involves using decoded fMRI to induce brain activity patterns that match a known state. For example, if you wanted to have the athletic talents of basketball superstar Shaquille O'Neal, you would obtain a brain activity pattern in Shaq's visual cortex and use DecNef to modify the patterns in your own visual cortex using fMRI. While DecNef isn't quite possible at current technological level yet, the BU researchers have succeeded in using it in subjects to induce brain activity patterns associated with a simple shape.
Most surprisingly, researchers found that the DecNef approach worked even when test subjects weren't aware of what they were learning.
According to one of the researchers:
...mere inductions of neural activation patterns corresponding to a specific visual feature led to visual performance improvement on the visual feature, without presenting the feature or subjects' awareness of what was to be learned ... we found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects' visual performance improved.
Here's a video explaining DecNef in greater detail:
While Decoded Neurofeedback overall sounds like a mind-blowing way to unconsciously and effortlessly learn something, more practically the BU researchers are looking into the method as a rehabilitative approach. A stroke victim, for example, could have his or her motor brain activity patterns matched with a healthy subject, which could theoretically quicken their recovery in ways that traditional rehabilitation cannot.
This post also appears on medGadget, an Atlantic partner site.