Brain-Buzzing Thinking Cap Can Make You Smarter or Dumber

People have been working on the concept of an electronic cap to supercharge your brain's learning ability for a while. But the one you see here, devised by a Vanderbilt team, has a funny (and potentially very abusable) trick: flip a switch, and it makes you more prone to mistakes and confusion. Don't show your backstabbing classmates!

Previous research has shown that the medial-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for recognizing mistakes, emits a spike of negative voltage at the moment we recognize that we've done something incorrectly. Vanderbilt psychologists Robert Reinhart and Geoffrey Woodman theorized that these brainwaves are part of the mechanism that lets us learn from mistakes, and set about messing with them.

They came up with a headband that places one electrode at the top of the wearer's head, and another at the cheek. After researchers sent a tiny current through a subject's brain for 20 minutes, wearers were asked to perform a learning task while the team watched the electrical activity of the subjects' brains.

Those who received a top-to-bottom current showed a measurably larger brainwave response when they recognized a mistake. They also made fewer errors and learned the task more quickly. Subjects who had the brain zap going bottom-to-top showed the opposite: smaller brainwave responses, more errors, and a longer learning process.

The performance difference between boosted and hobbled subjects was only about four percent, but the brainwave evidence showed clearly that the thinking cap made a difference. A 20 minute session's effect lasted for about five hours. "This success rate is far better than that observed in studies of pharmaceuticals or other types of psychological therapy," Woodman said.

The research team hopes this finding could pan out not just as a learning aid, but as a clinical treatment for conditions like ADHD and schizophrenia, both of which affect the brain's performance. Let's just hope they label that reverse switch very clearly. [Vanderbilt University]