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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

At This Plano Camp, Students Learn To Focus By Making Art With Their Brainwaves

Stella M. Chavez
Courtney Johnson, an employee at Capital One, in Plano, Texas, helps a student adjust her EEG headset to create art using her brainwaves.

Fourth- and fifth-graders are gathered inside a cool, dark conference room. They take turns wearing headsets and face a computer screen. Calming, electronic music plays in the background.

The objective: to paint. But this isn’t exactly the kind of painting you’d imagine.

“Remember, this is your canvas or your piece of paper and this is your paint brush,” Courtney Johnson, a Capital One employee, tells a student. “And you can move your paint brush around slowly by moving your head. OK?”

That’s right — the student’s head is her paintbrush. The EEG headset tracks her movement to create pictures on the screen, like inkblots or abstract shapes that look like starbursts or fireworks.

EEG, or electroencephalogram, measures the electrical activity in the brain. In the medical world, this technology can help detect brain damage or sleep disorders.

At this camp, organized by Capital One in Plano, the EEG headset reads brainwaves that are translated into art. The art students create shows how focused they are. For example, the darker the color and the larger the shape, the more focused a student is.

“Good job!” Johnson tells the student and goes over what she’s created:

“You can see that your focus was really high throughout and your meditation went high as well,” Johnson says. “And you were able to really see where your focus got extremely high when you started seeing some of the bigger shapes.”

Credit Stella M. Chavez / KERA News
Nine-year-old Carmen Sanchez shows off her "Brain Art" that she created by wearing an EEG headset from the company Braintone Art. Sanchez is a student in the Richardson Independent School District.

Carmen Sanchez, age 9, proudly shows off her design, a mix of lavender, purple and white.

“I was trying to paint like a person in the background and then just a bunch of shapes,” Carmen said. “Like, I painted a mouth right here and then I tried doing a bunch of shapes.”

Look closely at her design and you’ll see a faded face. Carmen is going to be a fifth-grader this fall in the Richardson school district. She said the exercise will help her when she goes back to school.

“I think this will help me focus more because since it’s all about focusing,” Carmen said. “The work they give me in school, I can think it’s just like the thing we did over there and then I have to focus and then I might get a hundreds.”

Carmen is one of 160 students who took part in the two-week Math Corp summer camp, which is for kids who need extra help with math.

This year, camp organizers used technology from a company called Braintone Art. And they’ve added art to what is mostly a science, technology and math camp.

“You hear a lot, ‘Eat a good breakfast and you’ll be able to focus and stay awake all day,’ or ‘Get a goodnight sleep and you’ll be able to do this tomorrow,’” said Danael Broussard, senior manager for Home Loans Servicing at Capital One. “And it’s going from people telling you, ‘It may work,’ to now they’re actually able to see specifically actions that they take or think about are impacting the way they’re able to clear their minds and meditate and/or stay focused.”

For example, Broussard said students are told to focus on squeezing their hand as they create their artwork on the screen. That action can prompt bigger shapes to appear on the screen.

Credit Stella M. Chavez / KERA News
At a summer camp, organized by Capital One in Plano, Texas, kids wear EEG headsets to create art with their brainwaves.

Hillary Jackson, head of Home Loans Servicing for Capital One, sits on the board of directors for Communities in Schools’ Dallas region. She said one of the reasons for the camp is to help prepare kids for the upcoming school year.

“It teaches them not just that technology can help you be faster and multitask and not pay attention to the world around you,” Jackson said. “But that we can also use technology and innovation to really create beautiful things that make this world a brighter place.”

In this fast-paced world with iPads and smartphones and endless distractions, Jackson said creating art can help students slow down.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.