The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

OpenBCI: Background on the Brain

A few years ago I was given an Emotiv EPOC headset. The EPOC is a reasonably affordable, consumer EEG headset with 14 channels — essentially, a device that measures electrical activity generated inside the brain with electrodes placed on the scalp.

Emotiv EPOC image from http://winlab.rutgers.edu/~jkting/ The Emotiv EPOC

At the time, it was the best device for an amateur like myself to investigate what was going on between the ears. However, my experience with the EPOC was unsatisfactory; I couldn’t access the raw data, which is encrypted, without paying $300 — almost as much as the original device — to upgrade to a ‘research’ version.

Then came the OpenBCI. The OpenBCI is an open-source brain-computer interface that lets you access raw data. It has 8 channels by default — you can add more channels with a daisy-chain module — and can record not only EEG, but EKG (electrical activity from the heart) and EMG (electrical activity from muscles) as well. The OpenBCI ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year.

OpenBCI image A v3 OpenBCI board

The OpenBCI appealed to me for many reasons. The fact that it was open-source was first on my list, as I am a strong supporter of open-source software and hardware. I would not be limited to what the manufaturer provided; if I wanted, I could improve the design, modify it, or write my own applications to process and display the data. Furthermore, the OpenBCI is based on the Arduino microcontroller, which I’m already familiar with.

I didn’t see many drawbacks, so I placed a pre-order for the OpenBCI . It seemed like the perfect chance to revive my interest in the brain’s inner workings, and this time not be limited by a locked-down device.


While I was waiting for my pre-order to ship, I started learning as much as I could about the brain and brain-computer interfaces. I wanted to know enough about the topic to start experimenting as soon as my OpenBCI board arrived.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find much on the web written for amateurs like myself.

So I decided to write the articles I wanted to read: In this series I’ll do my best to give a brief primer on brain science for amateurs interested in brain-computer interfaces I’ll try to provide an accessible, but — to the best of my ability - scientifically valid look at the basics of the brain for all the DIY enthusiasts, amateurs, makers, and autodidacts like myself.

The information in this series is drawn from what I’ve read from Wikipedia, blogs, Getting Started With Neurofeedback by John N. Demos, and in assorted academic papers, as well as a few TED talks and lectures. In the final post I’ll give a round-up of useful resources for further reading.

Disclaimer

I’m not an expert! I’m not a scientist, neuroscience researcher, or clinician, and I don’t have degrees and qualifications behind my name. I’ve done my best to make sure the information in these articles accurate, but please let me know if you find errors.

Brain-computer interfaces can be dangerous! Make sure you know what you’re doing — not just from this series — before putting electrodes on yourself or anyone else.

Posts in the series

  1. Introduction (this post)
  2. Brain Basics
  3. The Regional Brainfreshly pressed!
  4. Brainwave Frequency Bands
  5. EEG Electrode Locations
  6. Resources for Amateurs

Hopefully, when you’re done this series you’ll have a better understanding of what makes you tick, and, if you’re interested in experimenting with brain-computer interfaces and getting a first-hand look at what’s going on in your mind, you’ll know where to start.

I’ll update this post as future articles are published. They’ll all be tagged Background on the Brain. You can read them as they’re released by following me on Twitter, or by subscribing to the The Autodidacts’ RSS Feed.