Not long ago, a manager at the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) nuclear plant outside Toronto was completing a routine drill. The manager had to demonstrate that he could accurately instruct a computer to open and close a series of simulated valves--valves crucial to controlling the water and pressure that keep radioactive material contained. But this particular demonstration was unusual, since Lanzanin was operating the valves with his mind. He never touched a keyboard. And when his brain was focused enough to tell the valves onscreen to open or close, they obeyed.
The employee was channeling his thoughts through a new device that measures the ebb and flow of the brain's electrical activity. Called the BodyWave, the iPod-size tool straps onto your arm and--via three sensors that touch your skin--detects levels of neurotransmissions flowing through the central nervous system. Scientists have known for years that brain activity can be measured in wave patterns. Broadly speaking, the brain generates four kinds of patterns: delta (seen most often during sleep), theta (when you're daydreaming or catnapping), alpha (often observed when you are aware but relaxed, like during a massage or a long run) and finally--the key one for cognitive processing--beta waves. By measuring these waves, the BodyWave device can determine when your concentration has peaked--and therefore, when you are primed to make an important decision.
The technology is complicated, but the implications are staggering. What if you could wear a device that told you when your brain was focused enough to make a split-second decision: when to put a scalpel into a patient, when to execute a stock trade, when to make a putt on the 18th green--or when to activate a nuclear-plant valve?
The BodyWave device is being used not only in training at OPG but also at NASA, where it is being researched for pilots operating supersonic aircraft. In North Carolina, the Richard Childress NASCAR team is using the BodyWave to help its pit crews learn to focus. Tire changers on a NASCAR team are expected to be able to remove five lug nuts in one second. Losing focus means losing races.
So how exactly does the BodyWave work? The technology is based on electroencephalography (EEG), the study of how brain activity--from automatic impulses like breathing to active thoughts like what to have for dinner--excites neurons to emit brain waves. This electrical activity originates in the brain but is transported along the central nervous system. You can wear the BodyWave on your arm or, actually, anywhere on the skin, which is highly sensitive to changes in the central nervous system. (That's one reason you redden when embarrassed.) The sensors register the electrical charges that occur in your brain when you concentrate hard. The act of concentration necessitates the firing of neurons in careful synchrony. That synchrony produces a unique electrical signature that can be measured. When you stop concentrating, the synchrony breaks and the signature changes. The BodyWave then transmits this change through a simple receiver plugged into a USB port. A computer can tell you, in real time, whether you've been focused or were pondering what to do this weekend.