Health

Thinking caps and superbrains

  • 5 February 2011
  • From the section Health
man with thinking cap

Are we entering the era of the thinking cap - a device to supercharge our brains?

Could there be a time when everyone from schoolchildren to pensioners, and artists to accountants top up their natural abilities with some funky head-gear?

There have already been suggestions that electricity can boost mathematical talent and now researchers in Australia have found a way to boost problem solving.

The team at Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney believe people find it difficult to think "outside of the box" because they become blinded by past experience.

So if someone is used to solving a problem one way, the brain struggles to come up with new solutions.

They used these well-known Roman numeral maths problems:

You must move one match so that the puzzle makes sense.

In the first puzzle you have to change the numbers so that "3 = 9 - 1" becomes "3 = 4 - 1".

Testing the thinking cap

But after repeatedly doing the puzzles in which you have to change the numbers, the brain struggles to answer the other puzzles, in which you have to change the symbols round.

In this study only 20% of people could figure out "6 = 6 + 6" becomes "6 = 6 = 6".

But the people wearing thinking caps fared much better.

The researchers passed an electric current through the brain to reduce the activity of part of the brain called the left anterior temporal lobe and increase the activity of the right.

As a result, three times as many people could solve the problem.

Professor Allan Synder, director of the Centre for the Mind, said the effect hinged on changing the balance between the two halves of the brain: "The approach we used can temporarily modulate hemispheric balance to our advantage.

"The effects of stimulation last probably an hour, which is exactly what we wanted, a temporary window that allows us to connect the dots in a novel way."

An enhanced future?

There have also been claims that stimulating the brain can improve the ability to learn a language, memory and attentiveness.

Dr Roi Cohen Kadosh, from the University of Oxford, has shown that brain stimulation can improve mathematical ability.

He said: "The primary aim is to apply this kind of research to patients with neurodamage or learning difficulties, but then we could look at enhancing abilities."

He is starting to work with private companies to design a cap that could be used for enhancement.

Professor Synder also believes brain boosting headgear can be developed.

He told the BBC: "The thinking cap of the future is not one that helps us to remember facts as the internet has solved that problem, but one that facilitates learning and unlearning mindsets. It's all about being original."

Dr Chris Chambers, neuroscientist from the University of Cardiff, believes there are problems with the Australian study.

He argues that you can prove that stimulation has an effect only in those maths puzzles, not on wider thinking.

The cause is also elusive. The electricity could just be making people more awake and alert, he says.

When it came to thinking caps, Dr Chambers told the BBC: "It's science fiction, everything we know about the subject suggests this is many many years away if it even happens at all."

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