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Electrical Brainstorm! Can This Electrico-Stimulation "Thinking Cap" Help You Learn Faster?

Developed by a pair of psychologists at Vanderbilt University, it works by stimulating the medial-frontal cortex, or the part of the brain that goes "Oops!" when we make a mistake.

[Image: Flickr user veggiefrog]

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience hints at something truly sci-fi: an electro-stimulation thinking cap.

Previous research has demonstrated that electrical stimulation, when applied to certain brain regions, can help creativity blossom. This study, on the other hand, deals specifically with the intake of new sensory information. Developed by a pair of psychologists at Vanderbilt University, this "thinking cap"—really, a bunch of electrodes strapped to a participant's head—manipulates our ability to learn by sending a mild electric current through the brain.

Whenever we make a mistake, the brain sends an electrophysiological response from the front (specifically, the medial-frontal cortex) to the back of the head. According to ScienceBlog, "The medial-frontal cortex is believed to be the part of the brain responsible for the instinctive 'Oops!' response we have when we make a mistake."

These "Oopses"—whether it's a dissonant key in a difficult piano sonata, or the "ouch" one experiences when touching a hot panhandle for the first time—add up, helping our neural machinery make better decisions for the future. Researchers in this case had participants engage in complicated learning tasks based on trial and error, by having them match numbers on a screen using an unlabeled game controller. Along the way, they stimulated the brain in a few different ways. They discovered that test subjects who experienced front-to-back brain electrophysiological stimulation performed better at this color-matching task than a control group:

When anodal current was applied, the spike was almost twice as large on average and was significantly higher in a majority of the individuals tested (about 75% of all subjects across four experiments). This was reflected in their behavior; they made fewer errors and learned from their mistakes more quickly than they did after the sham stimulus.

Such technology would've been really great to have in 7th grade algebra.

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