Psychologists have developed a form of training, involving biofeedback, that can boost people's ability to concentrate. The system shows potential as a way to help people with ADHD (i.e an attention deficit). The work was inspired by research showing that brain areas involved in arousal overlap with those involved in sustained attention.
Participants were first tested on a boring concentration task, during which single numbers between 1 and 9 appeared on a computer screen hundreds of times. The task was to press the left mouse key in response to any number that appeared, except for 3.
Half the participants then undertook the biofeedback training, during which they were shown how their arousal levels - as indicated by a computer reading of the sweatiness of their skin - increased when the researcher clapped his hands and called "wake up". With practice, the participants used the computer feedback to learn to create that burst of arousal entirely by themselves, in time with their own utterance of the word "now".
The remaining participants, instead of completing this training, played a computer game, and acted as a control group.
All the participants then repeated the boring concentration task. For the participants who'd completed the training, the prompt to boost their own arousal was indicated by a number appearing in grey rather than the usual black (controls also saw this, but for them it did not act as an arousal prompt).
The participants who'd undertaken the biofeedback training, including several with ADHD, showed substantial improvements in their ability to concentrate relative to the controls. This was indicated by a reduction in the number of errors they made (i.e. how many times they pressed the mouse button in response to the number 3), and the fact that their reaction times didn't become more variable with time, whereas the reactions of the control group did.
Redmond O'Connell and colleagues, who conducted the research, said: "This experiment has demonstrated that a relatively simple cognitive intervention can lead to substantial neuropsychological improvements."
OCONNELL, R., BELLGROVE, M., DOCKREE, P., LAU, A., FITZGERALD, M., ROBERTSON, I. (2008). Self-Alert Training: Volitional modulation of autonomic arousal improves sustained attention. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1379-1390. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.018