Most people who have attempted to quickly learn material through what is commonly known as cram sessions have used caffeine to aid them in their studies. Cram sessions typically take place when a high volume of material is needed to be learned for an imminent activity, such as a final exam. However, psychologists have released a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience which shows that a mild electric current to the brain can selectively manipulate one’s ability to learn. An electric thinking cap used in the quest for fast learning instead of caffeine and all-night study sessions appears to be a future possibility.
The study’s authors, Vanderbilt psychologists Geoffrey Woodman and Robert Reinhart, have found that applying a mild electric current to the medial-frontal cortex area of the brain can assist and enhance the learning ability of the subject. Using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a mild current was applied from an anodal electrode which traveled from the crown of the subject’s head to their cheek. The current traveled through one electrode on the crown of the head, passing through bone, brain, muscle, and skin and exited through another electrode on the subject’s cheek. According to Reinhart, tDCS is one of safest noninvasive brain stimulation techniques. Subjects reported only a mild itching or tingling sensation at the start of each session.
After stimulation sessions lasting 20 minutes with the thinking cap, researchers gave the subject a learning task. As the learning task was in progress, the electrical activity in each participant’s brain was measured in real time. This gave the researchers the opportunity to watch as the learning tasks were completed and keep track of the changes in the brain as mistakes were being made. The medial-frontal cortex area of the brain is considered to be the part of the brain that is responsible for those instinctual error responses that people have. In other words, it is where the “oops” thought originates when someone knows immediately that they have made mistake. The learning tasks being performed by the study participants showed a much greater spike in those responses by subjects who were given the anodal current. This resulted in fewer errors and faster learning from mistakes from those given the current as opposed to those who were part of a control group given an imitation current. The electric thinking cap, which, in this study, were comprised of an elastic headband and two electrodes, showed that subjects who received the anodal current were capable of fast learning.
In the opposite situation, one in which subjects were given a reverse, or cathodal, current which traveled from the electrode on the subject’s cheek to the one on the crown of their head, the error rate was greater. In fact, the spike in the medial-frontal cortex area was significantly lessened and the participants not only made more errors but took longer to complete the learning task. The monitored responses, according to Woodman, were plain to see on an EEG. He further states that the observed rates of success are far better than those achieved from other psychological therapies or from pharmaceuticals.
Researchers found that a 20 minute stimulation session effectively lasted around five hours. In fact, the stimulation transferred to other tasks as well. The researchers believe that stimulation through an electric thinking cap not only has possibilities for fast learning but may have other clinical benefits. In addition to the ability to improve learning, there may be treatment possibilities for performance conditions such as ADHD or schizophrenia.
By Dee Mueller