Photo: Jonathan Hordle/REX USA.
We'll never forget how our high school teachers would instruct us to "Put on your thinking caps, kids!" And, we'll never forget how cheesy we thought it was. The truth, of course, was that many of us could have seriously used a "thinking cap" back in the day — something to make all the calculus formulas and WWI chronology stay locked up for easy recall.
Well, it seems science is well on its way to making this particular sci-fi dream come true. A team of researchers at Vanderbilt University has discovered a way to make us learn faster — namely, by running an electric current through our brains while we're doing it.
In the team's study, which was published this month in the journal Neuroscience, subjects were outfitted with caps with electrodes attached to either side of their head; they received either a mild direct current through their brains for 20 minutes or a placebo treatment that mimicked the tingly physical sensation of the electricity. Following this, they were given a complex memorization-based learning task to complete. The subjects who received the current performed significantly better, finishing the exercise more accurately and in less time than those who received the placebo treatment.
So, how did the "thinking caps" work? The researchers discovered that the current stimulated the subjects' mid-frontal cortexes, an area of the brain associated with one's "inner critic" — basically, the part of us that responds when we make a mistake. In practical terms, the increased activity in the mid-frontal cortex made subjects more able to learn from their slipups, more cautious, and less error-prone. Interestingly, the study also found that the current's effects not only lasted for more than five hours in most of the subjects, but the performance enhancements were transferable to other types of activities as well. Researchers hope this will be beneficial to those suffering from conditions like ADHD and schizophrenia.
It's not all positive, though. By stimulating the part of the brain that elicits an emotional response when a mistake is made, the treatment also resulted in an increase in the feeling of shame in the subjects who received the direct current. So, we have to ask: Would you want to increase your mental performance if it came with an extra serving of self-criticism? (ScienceDaily)