Finally, a thinking cap that really can help you learn

 

My honours project was an EEG study on rhythm maintenance in which we asked participants to follow a simple rhythm and fill in the missing beats with key presses on a computer keyboard. We were then able to watch in real time as their brains reacted to the stimuli. It’s completely mesmerising watching brain waves dancing across the screen. It’s less mesmerising when you realise that every tiny electrode you hook up to the skull-cap the participants are wearing exponentially increases your data collection and subsequent work. Still, very cool to run an EEG study, even if it wasn’t selected for publication. The competition for publication is pretty great, especially when people are making breakthrough discoveries such as a literal thinking cap.

Ph. D candidate Robert Reinhart and assistant professor of psychology Geoffrey Woodman of Vanderbilt University have recently published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience in which they demonstrated that by using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) that you can essentially increase or decrease learning capacity by stimulating specific parts of the brain with a tiny electrical current. tDCS looks similar to EEG in that the participant wear a cap into which electrodes are placed however EEg is used to measure brain activity whereas tDCS applies a direct current to stimulate areas of the brain.

In the study, participants carried out a reverse Simon says type game in order to generate the most errors. The researchers found that by targeting stimulation to the medial-frontal cortex, which we believe recognises errors, they were able to significantly increase a participant’s performance. They also found out that the learning effects (such as recovering from and correcting mistakes quickly) were transferrable to other skills and that the effects lasted for about five hours. The sci-fi lover in me wants to say that coffee-fueled all-night cramming sessions may soon be replaced by short tDCS sessions, but even though the sensation is barely noticeable would you want to be zapped in the brain if it improved your capacity for learning?

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