Can neurofeedback provide evidence of direct brain-behavior causality?
AUTHORS: Kvamme TL, Ros T, Overgaard M
NeuroImage, 258: 119400, September 2022
Neurofeedback is a procedure that measures brain activity in real-time and presents it as feedback to an individual, thus allowing them to self-regulate brain activity with effects on cognitive processes inferred from behavior. One common argument is that neurofeedback studies can reveal how the measured brain activity causes a particular cognitive process. The causal claim is often made regarding the measured brain activity being manipulated as an independent variable, similar to brain stimulation studies. However, this causal inference is vulnerable to the argument that other upstream brain activities change concurrently and cause changes in the brain activity from which feedback is derived. In this paper, we outline the inference that neurofeedback may causally affect cognition by indirect means. We further argue that researchers should remain open to the idea that the trained brain activity could be part of a “causal network” that collectively affects cognition rather than being necessarily causally primary. This particular inference may provide a better translation of evidence from neurofeedback studies to the rest of neuroscience. We argue that the recent advent of multivariate pattern analysis, when combined with implicit neurofeedback, currently comprises the strongest case for causality. Our perspective is that although the burden of inferring direct causality is difficult, it may be triangulated using a collection of various methods in neuroscience. Finally, we argue that the neurofeedback methodology provides unique advantages compared to other methods for revealing changes in the brain and cognitive processes but that researchers should remain mindful of indirect causal effects.