Daily routines improve people's cognitive abilities


Regular behaviours, such as drinking coffee and listening to music, can affect brain activity in ways that improve cognitive function, particularly in tasks requiring focus and memory.

The MINDWATCH algorithm, developed over the past six years by Rose Faghih, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at NYU Tandon, analyses data from any wearable device that can track electrodermal activity (EDA) to estimate a person's brain activity.

This behaviour exhibits changes in electrical conductance induced by emotional stress and linked to sweating responses.

In a recent study, participants completed cognitive tests while listening to music, drinking coffee, and inhaling perfumes based on their personal preferences while wearing skin-monitoring wristbands and brain-monitoring headbands. Without using any of those stimulants, they successfully completed those tests.

Music and coffee measurably changed the subjects' brain arousal, essentially putting them in a physiological "state of mind" that could modulate their performance on the working memory tasks they were completing, according to the Mindwatch algorithm.

In particular, Mindwatch found that the stimulants caused an increase in "beta band" brain wave activity, a condition linked to optimal cognitive function. The slight positive impact that perfume also had points to the need for more research.

“The pandemic has impacted the mental well-being of many people across the globe and now more than ever, there is a need to seamlessly monitor the negative impact of everyday stressors on one's cognitive function,” said Faghih.

“Right now MINDWATCH is still under development, but our eventual goal is that it will contribute to the technology that could allow any person to monitor his or her own brain cognitive arousal in real-time, detecting moments of acute stress or cognitive disengagement, for example.

At those times, MINDWATCH could ‘nudge’ a person towards simple and safe interventions — perhaps listening to music  — so they could get themselves into a brain state in which they feel better and perform job or school tasks more successfully.”

The specific cognitive test used in this study — a working memory task, called the n-back test — involves presenting a sequence of stimuli (in this case, images or sounds) one by one and asking the subject to indicate whether the current stimulus matches the one presented "n" items back in the sequence.

This study employed a 1-back test — the participant responded "yes" when the current stimulus is the same as the one presented one item back — and a more challenging 3-back test, asking the same for three items back.

Researchers tested three types of music - energetic and relaxing music familiar to the subject, as well as novel AI-generated music that reflected the subject’s tastes. 

Consistent with prior MINDWATCH research, familiar energetic music delivered bigger performance gains — as measured by reaction times and correct answers — than relaxing music. While AI-generated music produced the biggest gains among all three, further research is needed to confirm those results.

Drinking coffee led to notable but less-pronounced performance gains than music, and perfume had the most modest gains.

Performance gains under all stimulations tended to be higher on the 3-back tests, suggesting interventions may have the most profound effect when “cognitive load” is higher.

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