Creating art with their minds, not their hands


Prof Andujar explains how Lewis, a doctoral student assisting with his project, can use his brain to paint images during a demonstration. — Photos: TNS

It was like a scene in Stranger Things, the science fiction television series created by the Duffer Brothers.

A student at the University of South Florida (USF), United States, put on a cap covered with tiny sensors that record electrical signals in the brain.

Then he began to stare at a computer screen.

The student, Tyree Lewis, was stoic.

He folded his hands in his lap and silently looked forward.

But as Lewis sat motionless, a blank canvas on the nearby screen started to fill up with shapes: red circles and triangles, green squares.

Lewis was creating art with just his mind.

It’s a process called “brain painting,” when an individual mentally selects colours and shapes to make abstract digital images. It requires intense concentration.

USF computer science and engineering professor Marvin Andujar is studying whether college students diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can use this futuristic technology to improve attention spans and reduce the need for prescription drugs, which can have side effects.

Lewis, a doctoral student who’s assisting with the project in Prof Andujar’s lab, performed a demonstration of the brain exercise last month. He does not have ADHD.

“The overall goal of this project,” Prof Andujar said, is to eventually get the brain-painting tool “into the hands of people outside the lab.”

“How can we help them create some sort of habit (where), while they’re improving their attention, at the same time they’re also improving their emotional state?”

‘We need this’

Prof Andujar, a computer scientist in the USF College of Engineering and director of the Neuro-Machine Interaction Lab, previously focused on developing mind-controlled drones using brain-computer interfaces.

They allow users to operate drones with an electronic headband known as an electroencephalography system, which reads electrical signals in the brain.

Prof Andujar guiding doctoral student Lewis on how to use brain-computer interface technology to paint images with his brain. — Photos: TNSProf Andujar guiding doctoral student Lewis on how to use brain-computer interface technology to paint images with his brain. — Photos: TNS

Those signals are translated into commands that prompt the drones to move. This process requires the participants’ complete attention to be successful.

In 2019, when showing off his drones at a business and technology summit in Tampa, Florida, US, Prof Andujar said people with ADHD approached him and asked about the technology, saying it might help them improve their short attention spans.

College students with ADHD also expressed interest after seeing it used elsewhere.

“The community... would tell me, ‘We need this. This is useful,’” Prof Andujar said.

ADHD is one of the most common mental health conditions, according to the World Health Organization. It’s typically diagnosed in children and often lasts into adulthood.

In 2016, an estimated 5.4 million kids ages two to 17 had ADHD in the US, accounting for about 8% of the age group.

At least 60% of children with the neurodevelopmental condition will experience symptoms as adults, researchers say.

An estimated 2% to 8% of college students have ADHD. Symptoms include hyperactivity, impulsiveness and difficulty paying attention.

The condition is usually treated with behavioural therapy and prescription drugs such as Adderall, a medication that helps people concentrate. Common Adderall side effects include decreased appetite and sleeping problems.

During a German study in 2010, a group of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, used brain-computer interface technology to brain paint. It offered them a new form of creative expression.

So Prof Andujar wondered: Could those with ADHD use brain painting to improve their attention spans and emotional well-being, and minimise the amount of medication they need?

Experimental art

In 2020, the National Science Foundation funded Prof Andujar’s brain-painting research with an USD$80,000 (RM354,160) grant.

He and his lab have since collected data on eight USF students, who each used the brain-painting technology six times. Two of the participants had ADHD.

The rest said they have struggled with their attention spans.

Here are some examples of brain painting images created by ADHD people.Here are some examples of brain painting images created by ADHD people.

Here’s how the brain exercise works: An individual straps on a USD$20,000 (RM88,540) electrode cap dotted with sensors, then sits in front of a computer screen.

Sometimes, the subject also wears an Oculus Rift headset to paint in virtual reality.

The screen displays colour, shape and control options.

The sensors detect electrical signals in the brain when a participant is staring at a specific option, eventually prompting a blank canvas to fill up with their selection.

Users must be totally focused on their painting, Prof Andujar said. They shouldn’t chat with friends or check their texts. If they do, they probably won’t be able to paint what they want. That’s because the sensors won’t detect them concentrating on their chosen option.

The process can be tiring for first-time participants, Lewis said.

Early results are promising, Prof Andujar said. Five of the eight students have noted slight improvements in their attention spans.

Participants need an hour or two to create an initial brain painting. But the more they use the technology, he said, the faster they become.

The researchers plan to recruit more USF students to keep collecting data. The team must also secure additional funding because most of their grant has been spent, Prof Andujar said.

At some point, he wants to host an art exhibit to showcase brain paintings. But above all else, Prof Andujar said he hopes to turn the technology into an effective and affordable therapy for those with ADHD. – TNS

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