Listening to music and drinking coffee are types of everyday pleasures that can affect a person’s brain activity in ways that improve cognitive performance, including tasks that require concentration and memory.
That’s the finding of a new study from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering involving MINDWATCH, an innovative brain-monitoring technology.
Developed over the past six years by NYU Tandon Rose Faghih, associate professor of biomedical engineering, MINDWATCH is an algorithm that analyzes a person’s brain activity from data collected through any wearable device that can monitor electrodermal activity (EDA). This activity reflects changes in electrical conductivity induced by emotional stress associated with sweat responses.
In this recent MINDWATCH study published in Nature Scientific Reportssubjects wearing skin-monitoring wristbands and brain-monitoring headbands completed cognitive tests while listening to music, drinking coffee, and smelling perfumes, reflecting their individual preferences. They also completed these tests without any of these stimulants.
The MINDWATCH algorithm found that music and coffee measurably changed subjects’ brain arousal, essentially putting them in a physiological “state of mind” that could modulate their performance on the working memory tasks they performed.
Specifically, MINDWATCH identified stimulants that induce increased “beta band” brain wave activity, a state associated with peak cognitive performance. Perfume also had a modest positive effect, suggesting the need for further study.
The pandemic has affected the mental well-being of many people around the world, and now more than ever there is a need for seamless monitoring of the negative impact of everyday stressors on cognitive function. MINDWATCH is currently still under development, but our ultimate goal is to contribute to a technology that could allow each person to monitor their own cognitive arousal in the brain in real time, detecting moments of acute stress or cognitive disengagement. for example. In those times, MINDWATCH could ‘nudge’ a person into simple and safe interventions -; maybe listening to music -; so they can bring themselves to a brain state where they feel better and perform work or school tasks more successfully.”
Rose Faghih, Associate Professor, NYU Tandon Biomedical Engineering
The specific cognitive test used in this study -; a working memory task called n-back test -; involves presenting a sequence of stimuli (in this case images or sounds) one at a time and asking the subject to indicate whether the current stimulus matches the presented “n” items back in the sequence. This study used a 1-back test -; the participant responded yes when the current stimulus was the same as the one presented one item back -; and a more challenging 3-back test that requires the same for three items back.
The researchers tested three types of music—energetic and relaxing music familiar to the subject, as well as new AI-generated music that reflected the subject’s tastes. Consistent with previous MINDWATCH research, familiar energetic music provided greater performance gains -; measured by reaction times and correct answers -; than relaxing music. While AI-generated music produced the largest gains among the three, further research is needed to confirm these results.
Drinking coffee produced noticeable but less pronounced gains than music, and perfume had the most modest gains.
Performance gains across all stimulations tended to be greater on 3-back tests, suggesting that interventions may have the most profound effect when “cognitive load” is higher.
Ongoing experiments by the MINDWATCH team will confirm the efficacy of the technology’s ability to consistently monitor brain activity and the overall success of various interventions in modulating that brain activity. Defining a category as generally successful interventions does not mean that every individual will find that it works for them.
The research was carried out as part of the Faghih National Science Foundation CAREER award under the project Multimodal Intelligent Noninvasive brain state Decoder for Wearable Adaptive Closed-loop arcHitectures (MINDWATCH). The study’s diverse data set is available to researchers, allowing for further research into the use of the safe interventions in this study to modulate cognitive brain states.
Faghih served as the senior author of this paper. Its first author is Hamid Fekri Azgomi, who received his Ph.D. with Faghih and is now a postdoctoral fellow in neurological surgery at UC San Francisco School of Medicine.
NYU Tandon School of Engineering
Fekri Azgomi, H., et al. (2023). Regulation of brain cognitive states by auditory, gustatory and olfactory stimulation with wearable monitoring. Scientific reports. doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-37829-z