What does confidence look like in the brain? And can we use this information to help boost confidence in those who suffer from low self-esteem or self-doubt?
A new study sheds light on these questions with a new brain-scanning technique that can read and amplify the brainwaves of a high-confidence state.
The findings may be particularly applicable toward the treatment of certain mental health conditions in which low confidence is a hallmark trait, such as depression, anxiety, or Alzheimer’s disease. The study also highlights the plasticity of the brain, suggesting that people may be able to change lifelong patterns of negative thinking, even later in life.
“How is confidence represented in the brain? Although this is a very complex question, we used approaches drawn from artificial intelligence (AI) to find specific patterns in the brain that could reliably tell us when a participant was in a high or low confidence state,” said study author Dr. Mitsuo Kawato, director of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratories at the Advanced Telecommunications Research (ATR) Institute International, Kyoto.
“The core challenge was then to use this information in real-time, to make the occurrence of a confident state more likely to happen in the future.”
During the study, participants were asked to perform a simple perceptual task as the researchers used brain scanning to monitor and detect the occurrence of specific complex patterns of brain activity that correlated with high self confidence.
Whenever the pattern of high confidence was detected, participants received a small monetary reward. This experiment allowed researchers to directly boost the participants’ confidence unconsciously since participants were unaware that such manipulation was taking place.
The effect could also be reversed, as confidence could be decreased.
“Surprisingly, by continuously pairing the occurrence of the highly confident state with a reward — a small amount of money — in real-time, we were able to do just that: when participants had to rate their confidence in the perceptual task at the end of the training, [they] were consistently more confident,” said research leader Dr. Aurelio Cortese of ATR.
Although the sample size was relatively small (17 people), the scientists say the research is in line with similar types of studies. In fact, in previous research, the team has already discovered a new way to unconsciously erase fear memories, essentially reprogramming the brain to overcome fear.
The team is currently working on the development of potential new clinical treatments for patients with various psychiatric conditions. The study opens the potential for radical new treatments of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias.
“Crucially, in this study confidence was measured quantitatively via rigorous psychophysics, making sure the effects were not just a change of mood or simple reporting strategy,” said senior author Dr. Hakwan Lau, associate professor in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Psychology Department and an expert in confidence and metacognition.
The study is published in the inaugural edition of Nature Human Behavior.