Harvard Medicine

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Ear Splitting

Research on selective auditory attention suggests that we have the capacity to train our brains.

When you’re in a restaurant with music blaring overhead and juicy gossip the next table over, it’s easy to zone out on your immediate conversation.

That capacity to tune in—or tune out—a single sound in a noisy room is called selective auditory attention. Seung-Schik Yoo, an HMS associate professor of radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and his colleagues recently studied this ability in hopes of determining how much control individuals can exert over their own brains.

In two small studies, the researchers found that, with the help of nearly instantaneous biofeedback, participants learned to listen better—or at least to boost activity in the auditory portion of their brains, a skill they retained for about two weeks.

For the studies, participants lay in MRI machines and listened to sounds while wearing special goggles that displayed real-time data of their brain activity. Most people who received correct neurofeedback were able to increase their short-term ability to activate the brain’s auditory areas. In contrast, the control group, thwarted by the random feedback from their goggles, failed to achieve a similar boost.

Yoo believes these findings hold promise for developing noninvasive ways to improve brain function and to overcome brain damage and certain neurological diseases. Yoo is now developing a new noninvasive method to precisely and selectively stimulate or suppress activity in targeted regions of the brain as small as a grain of rice.

“We have the innate ability,” he says, “to activate our brains.”

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