Researchers Give ‘Thinking Cap’ A Whole New, Literal Meaning

It seems like somebody decided to give the expression ‘get your thinking cap on’ a whole new, literal meaning. Psychologists Geoffery Woodman and Robert Reinhart conducted a study to prove that it is possible to enhance the ability to learn by controlling electrical current impulses to the brain. The study shows that this can be achieved by maneuvering the direction of electric current. That’s where thinking caps could come in handy.

Thinking Cap

Woodman and Reinhart decided to check if maneuvering the direction of current is possible by sending down a pulse of negative voltage via the medial frontal cortex. This is the same part of the human brain which produces negative voltage following  a fraction of a second of a person making an error. The two psychologists were also interested to test the longevity of this effect. This gave rise to the brilliant idea of a thinking cap to be introduced.

The makeshift thinking cap comprised a couple of electrodes attached within a headband made out of elastic. Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) was applied to all subjects that were part of the study. Direct current travels from the anode through the brain, skin, muscles and bones to the cathode which completes the circuit.  It is believed to be extremely safe as the current merely tickles and slightly itches at the start of every session.

Electrical Thinking Cap

John Russell / Vanderbilt University

Each subject was given a learning activity to associate the right button on a game controller to certain colours viewed on a display. Some complications were later introduced, such as lesser time to respond, to add to the difficulty. This allowed researchers to measure the rate at which the medial frontal cortex responded. They could also see the brain’s response upon any error made by the subjects.

When current was passed through the anode, the candidates made lesser mistakes and responded quicker. Conversely, current passed through the cathode impaired their ability to respond in time and also made them more error-prone as the candidates struggled to learn as much. Interestingly, the subjects noticed no effects as the error rate and response time was not abnormally high. However, these differences were easy to spot on the EEG. So then, fancy putting your thinking cap on?

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