Revealing Research: How Everyday Enjoyments Enhance Cognitive Abilities

The MINDWATCH study has unveiled intriguing insights into how everyday pleasures can elevate cognitive abilities. Engaging in simple pleasures like listening to music and sipping coffee can have a profound impact on brain activity, enhancing cognitive performance in tasks demanding concentration and memory. This revelation stems from a groundbreaking research project conducted by the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, featuring the innovative MINDWATCH brain-monitoring technology.

Over the course of six years, Professor Rose Faghih from NYU Tandon’s Biomedical Engineering department developed MINDWATCH, an algorithm capable of analyzing an individual’s brain activity through data collected by wearable devices capable of monitoring electrodermal activity (EDA). This activity, linked to emotional stress responses and characterized by changes in electrical conductance triggered by sweat, provides valuable insights into an individual’s mental state.

In the recent MINDWATCH study, participants wore wristbands to monitor their skin and headbands to monitor their brain while undergoing cognitive tests. These tests were carried out under various conditions, including listening to music, consuming coffee, and experiencing preferred scents from perfumes. Participants also completed these tests without any stimulants. The MINDWATCH algorithm uncovered that both music and coffee measurably altered the subjects’ brain arousal, inducing a physiological “state of mind” associated with enhanced cognitive performance. Specifically, the stimulants triggered increased brain wave activity in the “beta band,” known for its association with peak cognitive performance. Perfume had a modest positive effect, indicating potential for further exploration.

Professor Faghih emphasized the relevance of this research, particularly in the context of the pandemic’s impact on mental well-being. The goal is to develop MINDWATCH further so that it can enable individuals to monitor their cognitive arousal in real-time, detecting moments of acute stress or cognitive disengagement. At these times, MINDWATCH could offer simple and safe interventions, such as listening to music, to help individuals achieve a more optimal brain state for improved performance in various tasks, whether at work or in school.

The study employed a working memory task called the n-back test, involving the presentation of stimuli (images or sounds) one by one and requiring participants to identify whether the current stimulus matched one presented “n” items back in the sequence. The study utilized both a 1-back test and a more challenging 3-back test, with performance gains typically higher on the more demanding 3-back tests.

Researchers tested three types of music, including familiar energetic music, familiar relaxing music, and novel AI-generated music tailored to each subject’s preferences. Notably, familiar energetic music produced the most significant performance gains, followed by AI-generated music, while coffee consumption led to notable but less pronounced improvements. Perfume had the most modest effects.

The ongoing research by the MINDWATCH team aims to validate the technology’s consistent ability to monitor brain activity and assess the overall success of various interventions in modulating cognitive states. This research opens doors for future exploration of safe interventions to optimize cognitive performance.

The research, titled “Regulation of brain cognitive states through auditory, gustatory, and olfactory stimulation with wearable monitoring,” was published in the journal Scientific Reports on August 8, 2023, and is part of Professor Faghih’s National Science Foundation CAREER award project, Multimodal Intelligent Noninvasive brain state Decoder for Wearable AdapTive Closed-loop arcHitectures (MINDWATCH). The study’s diverse dataset is available for further research into the use of safe interventions to modulate cognitive states. The senior author of the paper is Professor Rose T. Faghih, with Hamid Fekri Azgomi as the first author. Azgomi completed his Ph.D. under Faghih and is currently a postdoctoral scholar of neurological surgery at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

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