Neurofeedback Increases Brain Activity Associated with Affection and Empathy

In May, 2014, The Scientific American reported findings from a recent fMRI neurofeedback study.  Researchers at the D’Or Institute for Research and Education and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro demonstrated that study participants who repeatedly watched their own brain activity when asked to recall a tender, affectionate moment in vivid detail had greater activation in brain areas associated with affection and empathy than the control group.

24 participants were asked to choose three moments from their personal lives:  a proud moment, an experience filled with affectionate feelings, and a neutral episode in a social setting such as shopping in the grocery store.  Then each participant was put into an fMRI machine, where their brain activity was recorded.  While they were in the fMRI machine, each participant viewed a visual display of a circle that would ripple and change shape.  For 12 of the participants, the circle’s changing shape was based on their brain activity, and these participants were told that the changes in the circle reflected changes in their moment-to-moment brain activity.  The other 12 simply saw a randomly changing circle, which was described to them as a visual focal point.

In each condition, the participants were repeatedly cued to remember the three life experiences they had prepared:  a proud moment, an affectionate episode, and a neutral social interaction.  The participants who watched a visual display that reflected changes in their own brain activity showed increased activation in brain areas associated with affection and empathy over the course of the repeated trials.  The participants who watched a randomly changing visual display did not show any such increase in brain activation. 

The researchers believe this type of training may benefit fighting couples and other feuding groups by boosting tenderness and compassion.  This training may even help individuals with antisocial personality traits develop greater empathy.

This study joins hundreds of others supporting the fact that when people become aware of their own brain activity through observation, they can then change it – which is the very heart of neurofeedback. 

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