Electric Stimulation of the Brain Can Free Your Mind

New research suggests that jolting parts of the brain electrically–without surgery–can induce insight and creative thinking.


Yet another example of futuristic plotlines coming to fruition: New scientific research suggests that by stimulating parts of their brains electrically, people can be induced to think more creatively than they normally do.


In a paper titled “Facilitate Insight by Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation,” Richard P. Chi and Alan W. Snyder from the University of Sydney explain their methods, noting that they were inspired to try this novel experiment because “our experiences can blind us” and “once we have learned to solve problems by one method, we often have difficulties in generating solutions involving a different kind of insight.” In particular they note that there’s evidence “that people with brain lesions are sometimes more resistant to this so-called mental set effect.” Hence the attempt to simulate the same kind of disruption to brain activity that can be caused by lesions by merely externally stimulating the brain with transcranial direct current technology.

Yes, what these enterprising researchers were trying to do was fool with the usual electrical firestorm of a human brain in normal operation, with the hope of forcing it to forget its ingrained habits and think more creatively–an electricity-induced innovative mindset, if you like. It sounds like something you’d happily accept if it were a story line in Fringe…except it’s real.

And, according to the data, it works. The pair took 60 normal, healthy, right-handed volunteers and asked them to try to solve a task that required clever insight. All of them were told they’d be receiving some kind of brain stimulation. But just 20% of the control group (who received no stimulation) could solve the task. That’s compared with 60% of the volunteers who received electrical jolts to their brain–cathode stimulation of the left ATL (anterior temporal lobe) to suppress activity and anodal stimulation of the right ATL to increase activity. The team even tested inverted stimulation patterns, and they didn’t work–it has to be a stimulation of the right hemisphere. The team notes its findings are “consistent with the theory that inhibition to the left ATL can lead to a cognitive style that is less influenced by mental templates, and the the right ATL may be associated with insight or novel meaning.”

Incredibly, the science suggests that simply by donning a carefully-constructed hat or cap, and dosing your brain with the right kind of stimulation (don’t try this at home…), you may be able to think more innovatively than you have before. They note that more study is needed, specifically neurophysiological imaging to pinpoint the exact mechanism at work, but the numbers do stand up for themselves. Will boardroom crises of the future be solved like this, or clever military strategies constructed with a quick burst of electrical stimulation?

Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi master, wrote several times of a “braincap” that transformed how humans in the future lived–though he placed it in 2025, and it was more of an immersive artificial-reality device that required direct brain stimulation. Terry Pratchett teases us that “little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time” until they shoot through someone’s brain, inspiring them to think innovatively about “a falling apple or…water slipping over the edge of the bath.” Combined with those Jedi-like mind-control kids games that are hitting the scene now, it looks like sci-fi is becoming science fact.

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[Image via Flickr user delta-avi-delta].

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