Augmented cognition – or should it be alpha waves?

Neurophilosophy has a piece on DARPA funded attempts to make computer displays respond to users cognitive states.

We have to cope with increasing amounts of information, sometimes under stress. This is a problem for warfighters controlling complex systems (eg pilots). DARPA is therefore lookingat ways in which a system can sense the cognitive state of the human user and modify its output accordingly. This is based partly on close feedback from the brain – eg which parts are busy, doing what – and tries to optimise incoming signals to fit in with brain patterns.

Theres a strange video which expands this a little. The example in the video seems to me to beg the question: the heroine is dealing with several streams of information at once and becomes stressed as she chooses which to prioritise. But in all the examples, the machine (by altering her display to give one type or set of information visual or auidtory priority over another) is in effect making that decision for her, and I dont see the grounds on which it does this.

However, DARPA invented the internet, which probably seemed a very goofy idea back then, so this deserves serious attention. Its true that, as Neurophilosophy says, “We live in a time in which we are overwhelmed by information obtained from multiple sources, such as the internet, television, and radio. We are usually unable to give our undivided attention to any one source of information, but instead give ‘continuous partial attention’ to all of them by constantly flitting between them. ” (See Linda Stones ideas.

Modern business has the same problem: there are so many events to scan, some of which might hint at opportunities or dangers, that no-one can really do it. Data mining and automatic monitoring are tools which extend the range of our cognition, by doing some of the sifting for us and presenting us with partially formed clusters of information. However, at the same time, these tools access more information, and present even more data to the user. (Think of US TV news screens, with several streams of information present at the same time).

I suspect that the captain of a warship in action in, say, 1940, had about as many things to worry about. He had less information, but it was less pre-digested for him: his cognitive load may have been the same.

This DARPA research is about the more limited(?) field of how our brains select under pressure from the information presented to us. I certainly like the idea of a feedback loop from system to brain. Biofeedback is used in some games as “a learning strategy that enables persons to alter their brain waves.” It works by simple screen games. The pateint is monitotered:
“The three wavy lines …show activity in three separate EEG frequency bands or rhythms — here, theta, SMR, and high beta bands. The patients goal is to increase certain EEG frequency bands (e.g., SMR) while decreasing others (e.g., theta & high beta).The patient monitors her EEG frequency band activity NOT as wavy lines on the therapist machine, but as elements of a game on the game computer. Each frequency band appears as a colored rectangle which grows larger or smaller in response to her brain wave activity.”

The user controls activity on the game screen purely by altering his or her SMR frequency, and in so doing learns to idneitfy and control the feeling (or whatever it is) that generates this frequency.

This site lists an application in which thinking of something exciting makes the mouse move one way, something relaxing or sad the other way. “After many hours of practicing it does become easier to control and now I sometimes find this is easier than the eyebrow click. But it does depend on how I’m feeling. At first the F6 control was very tiring, but now not so much.”

Theres quite a lot of eccentricity (to put it mildly) in this area, though, and the technology is not properly developed. Alpha waves may or may not be the answer. But I wonder if it isnt ultimately going to be more fruitful to develop games that help us to get in the right mood for high stress and information processing loads?

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