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Electrical Shocks Could Improve Problem-Solving Skills

February 3, 2011

The phrase ‘put on your thinking cap’ could soon become more than just an axiom, according to researchers from the University of Sydney who have discovered that electrical stimulation of the brain could help an individual’s problem-solving skills.

Writing in the open-access journal PLoS ONE on Wednesday, Richard Chi and Allan Snyder of the school’s Center for the Mind discovered that a jolt to the anterior temporal lobes made a person three times more likely to solve a difficult problem when compared to members of a control group.

According to Guardian Science Correspondent Ian Sample, the technique used by Chi and Snyder is known as transcranial direct current stimulation or tDCS, and involved sending tiny, harmless electrical currents across the brain through conductive pads positioned on the subject’s skull.

In the experiment, 60 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 38 were given a series of puzzles in which they were to rearrange matchsticks in order to turn an invalid mathematical statement into a valid one.

Each participant first completed 27 of these problems to get used to doing them, and afterwards, some of the subjects received a 1.6 milliamp current through their brain while others were assigned to the control group. They were then presented with additional matchstick puzzles, though in order to achieve the correct answer, a different set of techniques needed to be used.

Those who received the shock were three times more likely to correctly adapt to the new puzzles, the researchers discovered. According to a statement released by PLoS ONE publishers Public Library of Science, these findings “are consistent with evidence that the right anterior temporal lobe is associated with insight or novel meaning and that inhibition of the left anterior temporal lobe can induce a cognitive style that is less top-down, less influenced by preconceptions.”

“Our findings demonstrate the possibility that we can modulate cognitive tradeoffs to our advantage in certain situations,” Allan Snyder, director of the University’s Center for the Mind, told Sample on Wednesday. “They are proof of concept for the ‘dream’ device, one that allows us to temporarily see the world anew, freeing us from entrenched mindsets.”

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