Technology with attitude

UK government-funded BCI app brings self hypnosis to everyone: an interview with NeuroCoach

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We at Neurogadget have another interview for you this week, this time with Jon Clare, one of the creators of the upcoming BCI app NeuroCoach. This new app is designed to monitor an individual’s state (based on their body’s feedback data) and determine the most appropriate time to deliver hypnotic suggestions. Focusing on the brain fitness market, this ‘interactive hypnosis’ app combines the BCI technology with hypnosis and runs on iOS devices using NeuroSky headset hardware. We spoke to Jon about hypnosis, neurofeedback, and NeuroCoach itself.

Neurogadget: First of all, what is the NeuroCoach app?

Jon Clare: Well, its interactive self hypnosis. (The app) drives a hypnotic induction using the bodies output, which is initially brainwaves; over time we’ll also incorporate heart-rate information. That data comes in and is collected , monitored and analysed by a content management system, which is used to optimally time the delivery of a hypnotic suggestion to the user when they are deemed to be most receptive.

NG: How is the hypnotic suggestion delivered?

JC: Our sessions (and hypnosis generally) are broken down into four stages. Stage one is the introduction, often where a hypnotherapist is setting (the patient’s) expectations, building trust, and so on.

Stage two is called ‘induction,’ where you are given clips of verbal content delivering hypnotic techniques and methods designed to try and move you into a state of ‘heightened and focused’ attention (aka hypnosis). During this stage your eyes are open and the user’s attention is displayed on screen in the form of an interactive visualizer – which responds as you focus your attention. This acts as an instant visual feedback for the user on how narrow and focused you are at any moment in time. At the start of this stage we take a unique baseline for each user and the plot a threshold on the screen for the user to try and ‘beat’. If they meet and sustain the threshold they are instructed to close their eyes and they move the next stage.

Intervention is the third stage, where we deliver instructive type content “You will improve your..XYZ”. This monitoring of a user, processing of data against logic and timing the content delivery of the intervention phase is essentially the key feature of NeuroCoach. Hopefully we deliver hypnotic instruction at a more optimal time than standard practice.

Finally the fourth stage is ‘wake-up’, where we re-orientate the user back to a normal state.

NG: what hardware are you using?

JC: We use the Neurosky Mindwave Mobile EEG sensors, but our intention is to eventually become agnostic from any particular sensor by building a sensor interface layer – that recognises which sensor is currently in use. We also produce our own proprietary ‘NeuroCoach index’ which processes all the data that comes in from (app user’s) sensors and drives the content selection. (that said) At the moment NeuroSky is the only commercial scale headset that’s available anyway and it is useful as it provides pre-defined attention and meditation levels – which align perfectly to what is needed to monitor an indication of the hypnotic state.

NG: What about the Emotiv, or the Muse?

JC: Well the muse hasn’t launched yet, they’ve got the funding and now they’re trying to work out how to make it scalable. Certainly the Emotiv is out there, but to us it just seems a little too expensive for the person on the street.

We’re primarily interested in measuring information from the prefrontal cortex right at the front of the brain [ed. note: this is where the NeuroSky sensor sits on the head]. Focused attention levels have a high correlation to hypnotic state. If we ever were to need a sensor placed, it would be over Pz, right in the middle, because that’s a good place to measure theta from.

NG: Are there any particular brainwave states are correlated with hypnosis?

JC: Taking one step back, Neuroscience hasn’t found a unique EEG signature for hypnosis yet. Right now you can’t look at an EEG trace and say “at this point they were not in hypnosis, and at this point they became hypnotized”, that’s not available currently.

However there quite a lot of good ‘indicators’ which are highly correlated with hypnosis. (For example) an increase in Theta waves has quite a high correlation with hypnosis. Over time we want to build more and more of these indicators into the NeuroCoach app. Heart Rate variability is another great indicator for hypnosis. there are some studies that show you can start to evaluate hypnotic depth by heart rate variability. Eventually, the NeuroCoach index will incorporate a collection of these brain and body indicators to become more accurate in assessing the user’s state and the timing of the induction / intervention content switch.

NG: What kinds of hypnotic sessions are you going to offer?

JC: We’ll be launching with three sessions; the app will arrive with those three sessions already pre-loaded. The first is a demo session, which shows you how to use the device and talks you through (how it works). The second is ‘reduce stress’, and the last one is ‘get into the zone’ or focusing your attention. The app contains an in-app store so you can purchase the other ‘aspires’ series of sessions such as ‘attention control’, ‘positive attitude’, ‘self discipline’, et cetera.

NG: How have you been funding your development?

JC: Mostly it’s been privately funded, by the company directors and our angel funders. We also got awarded two rounds of UK government funding to build prior prototypes to get where we are now. We received two grants from the London Development Agency a few years ago, one original grant for £10,000 pounds and another for £70,000. The LDA was a UK Government body set up to encourage London based businesses with innovative technology concepts, and they got very excited about the potential (of the app). We spent a good chunk of that working with Professor Anthony Steed, a brain computer interface expert at UCL University, to help us crack some of the harder BCI problems that we had.

NG: Is there enough public interest for the app to be successful?

JC: I think hypnosis is really starting to come out of the shadows, and there are a few points that underline that. A few years ago the UK instituted a smoking ban, no smoking in restaurants or public places, that kind of stuff. The online yellow pages had a massive spike in hypnotherapist searches. People who were forced to quit smoking (after the ban) a lot of the time turned to hypnosis.

Hypnosis has been tested and proven in a huge number of topics including pain management, immune system boosting, stress reduction and many others. The public are starting to get warmed up to it, and now there are all sorts of hypnosis downloads you can get online, things like that.

NG: Do you think the recent emergence of neuroscience has anything to do with it?

JC: Hypnosis (in modern research) has been kicking around for about 25 years, and in the 80’s everyone got really excited (about it) and a lot of research money got poured into trying to understand hypnosis better. essentially they didn’t find any definite hypnotic signature, and over time interest waned. In the last five years, probably aligned with the recent neuroscience boom, because of MRI scanners and other new techniques that is changing.

What excites me, is that if hypnosis was a drug everyone would be taking it. What fascinates me is that it’s not a pill, not a drug, it’s just a technique. It’s got no side effects or anything like that, just a bit of a bad reputation that’s stuck over the years. What we’re hoping to say is ‘look we’re going to make it more professional, we’re going to make it more scientific, and put some computerized intelligence behind it, but (hypnosis) is essentially a naturally occurring (neural) phenomena… We’re bringing hypnosis into the modern world.