March 27, 2014
Put On Your Thinking Caps
When I was younger, my mother would always tell me to put on my “thinking cap” whenever I was faced with a problem that she wanted me to figure out on my own. So did my grandmother, my aunt, and even a few of my teachers in grade school through college. Yes, I have had college professors tell me to “put my thinking cap on.” I am sure most of you have heard the same thing throughout your life as well. It’s a rather amusing little saying. Too bad that is all it is. How nice would it be to have a cap we could put on to actually improve our brainpower? To make us smarter? That would be incredible. Given how difficult learning can be, especially for those of us who find text-based learning somewhat difficult, having a learning cap would certainly be of great use.
University of Vanderbilt psychologist Robert Reinhart and assistant professor of psychology Geoffrey Woodman have recently shown the world that it is indeed possible to selectively manipulate the ability our minds have to learn through applications of mind electrical currents. They did this by studying the medial-frontal cortex, which is believed to be the part of our brains that is responsible for the instinctive “Oops!” response that people have when they make a mistake. Studies have shown a spike of negative voltage originating from the media-frontal cortex milliseconds after a mistake is made, but no one has yet discovered why. Thinking about this, Reinhart and Woodman sought to establish that it could be possible to control the brain’s electrophysiological response to mistakes (the “Oops!” factor) and also that it could be intentionally regulated, either enhanced or diminished, depending on the direction of an electrical current applied to it. Thus far, this bi-directionality had been tested in animal studies, but this was going to be the first time it has ever been tested on humans.
For the test, they used an elastic headband that held two electrodes conducted by saline-soaked sponges to the cheek and the crown of the test-subject’s head. They would then apply 20 minutes of stimulation to the brain using tDCS – transcranial direct current stimulation – in which a very mild current travels from the anodal electrode, through the flesh and bone (and brain), and out through the corresponding cathodal electrode. This causes no pain. The test-subjects said that only a few seconds of mind tingling or itching was ever felt at the beginning of each test session. In each session, the subjects were each (randomly) given an andoal electrode, a cathodal electrode, or a sham condition that would replicate the same feelings as the other two without any effect to the brain. This way, the subjects could not tell the difference between the three tests. For the test itself, the subjects were given a learning task in which they had to figure out which buttons on a game controller would cause specific colors to be displayed on a monitor, and they had to do this via trial and error. This was then made more complex by randomly displaying a signal for the subject not to respond to. In addition, subjects were given less than a second to respond correctly, which gave them plenty of opportunities for “Oops!” responses. The researchers measured the electrical brain activity of each participant, allowing them to watch as the brain changed at the very moment a mistake was made and giving them the opportunity to determine how these brain activities changed under the influence of electrical stimulation.
So, its not quite the “thinking cap” we were hoping for, but it is a step in the right direction. Further tests are going to be done, of course, and who knows? Maybe one day we really will be able to put on our thinking caps.
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