By Emily Montgomery
In Spring 2019 Stephanie Scott was on a flight from Southern California to Denver after attending the Themed Entertainment Association and Story + Architecture + Technology = Experience conference when she received the email that set her on a course for her life’s work. “I have to go. Don’t I?” she recalls thinking as she read the message inviting her to attend the National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies (NCAN) conference in New York on the campus of SUNY-Albany.
“I was thinking about how I’d be living in a dorm with the top neuroscientists in the world learning about everything from the anatomy of the brain to technologies used for performing neurosurgery on animals,” she says.
It was an exciting opportunity, especially for a neurodiverse person whose traumatic brain injury (TBI) had impacted her day-to-day life. During her master’s program in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication in Spring of 2015, Scott was introduced to brain-computer interface technologies, or BCIs, in a class with Dr. Chuck Anderson and then Ph.D. student Elliott Forney. Scott says Forney’s presentation resonated as a “sophisticated communicative device enabling identity expression,” something she had been doing through art therapy after sustaining a TBI the year before while working on a back-country skiing photojournalism assignment.
Now, Scott, a second-year Ph.D. student in Journalism and Media Communication researches the sociology of technology, with a focus on ethical and inclusive considerations for communication technologies, specifically BCIs.
“My work explores the potential of BCIs to be more inclusive for neurodiverse users and offer more opportunities for different forms of self-expression,” she explains.
BCIs are a set of technologies that provide a direct link between the brain and the outside world to enable communication unaided by physical movement. They use headpieces or electrodes on the head that detect brainwaves and then analyze them with complex artificial intelligence software. They allow users to control an external device such as a computer, a robotic limb, or a wheelchair. Current research focuses on individuals who are immobile because of conditions such as ALS or a stroke. “Once you get late-stage ALS or experience a stroke, your ability to communicate can diminish as time goes on,” Scott says, “so these systems were developed to maintain an external social connection for loved ones and caregivers.”
Scott has a personal relationship with the use of BCIs for communication recovery. “I had a brain injury, and communication was very difficult,” Scott says. “Throughout my recovery I just gravitated toward the technology as it kind of became a vehicle.”
For the past seven years, Scott has been focusing on bringing discussions about the potential for BCIs to integrate art and art therapy into its use, and she has given talks at BCI research conferences across the globe. According to Scott, there is a lack of BCI research focused on forms of creative expression, so her own research centers on new ways to broaden the discussions around how BCIs are used as well as on the ethical implications of that use. “My idea was to overlay art and music therapies to work with a licensed therapist to figure out how to put traditional creative arts therapies onto a digital platform and then navigate it from there.”
This area of research is new and evolving, and both the industry and research communities involved in BCIs are exploring ways to expand BCIs into the arts, creativity, and aesthetics. “We can give access to people to have music and art based on their own neurofeedback… but what if we involved this technology in creative ways to help expand opportunities for rebuilding neuroplasticity?” Scott asks.
She is currently applying for a grant to bring BCI research to people going through TBI affective disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which Scott also suffers from. “Having a communication impairment for whatever reason, cognitive or otherwise, has become very important to me, “Scott said. “I don’t want other people to experience communication challenges. That’s where my work came from.”
Most recently, Scott won an honorable mention award in the 2022 CSU Art and Science exhibition for her piece “Identity Through Movement.” Scott used brainwaves from a participant from the Brain Computer Interface Lab at CSU a few years ago. “I got permission to paint over her brainwaves, using my own brain waves controlling a robot,” Scott says.
Scott has an at-home BCI system she uses to create her painting by projecting brainwaves from a BCI participant onto the floor. “I use EEG and p300 software that aid in controlling a Bluetooth robot that then distributes the paint onto the canvas,” Scott explains. “I’m only using my hands to dip that robot.”
Scott’s BCI research has been internationally recognized. She and one of her advisors, Dr. Chuck Anderson, who is head of the CSU brain computer interface lab and a member of the international BCI board, hosted a workshop titled “Neurofeedback During Artistic Expression as Therapy” at the 2018 international BCI meeting. “We were looking at ways to build neuro- and biofeedback into interface designs for therapeutic purposes,” Scott says. That way, she explains, BCIs could be helpful for many different kinds of people, not just those who are immobile.
“Being provided that opportunity to share those concepts really opened the door and allowed me the opportunity to pursue the work that I’m passionate about,” Scott states. She has since published her research in multiple publications; additionally, she has written book chapters and recently published a perspective piece in Frontiers with another doctoral student in the JMC department. Scott has also presented at four international BCI conferences. Aside from her many academic accomplishments, Scott is also on the board of the nonprofit Silent Speech that aims to restore speech to mute and paralyzed people.
“Disability is merely society’s failure to provide opportunities for cultural, economic, and social participation for every member of society.”
“I’m still finding pieces of my NCAN experience every day as I move forward with my research. Those experts who presented at the conference in 2019 reminded me of the importance of advocacy and ethics and continuing to place importance on the individual,” she notes. “Disability is merely society’s failure to provide opportunities for cultural, economic, and social participation for every member of society.”
Scott would like to acknowledge Dr. Chuck Anderson, Dr. Rosa Mikeal Martey, Dr. Katie Abrams, Dr. Joe Champ, and Dr. Tori Omega Arthur for their ongoing support.
The Department of Journalism and Media Communication offers several graduate programs, including the Ph.D. in Media Communication. Learn more about graduate programs on the department’s website.