Thinking Cap Stimulates Insight

Electric thinking cap boosts insight

Posted Feb 11, 2011

"The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify...into every corner of our mind."  - John Maynard Keynes

A little while back I interviewed the refreshingly creative and enthusiastic researcher Allan Snyder [see Conversations on Creativity with Allan Snyder]. In that interview, he said,

"I envisage a thinking cap that enables us to go uphill against our intrinsic cognitive design, that is, to remove the filters of perception, and thereby to improve memory, reduce prejudice, and make us more creative. This is admittedly futuristic, but increasingly it seems that it might one day be feasible."

It turns out, that day may be closer than even he originally thought.

Snyder and his colleague Richard Chi recently conducted a study [1] in which they had 60 healthy right-handed participants solve insight problems before and after receiving transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). tDCS is a safe, non-invasive technique that can increase or decrease cortical excitability and spontaneous neuronal firing in targeted regions depending on the eletrical charge of the current (say that sentence 10 times real fast!).

First, their participants solved 27 insight problems that required them to correct a false arithmetic statement by re-arranging matchsticks without being allowed to add or discard a stick (see picture below). These "Type 1" problems involved a particular kind of insight (changing an X to a V).

Then the fun part began: all participants received 5 minutes of brain stimulation. Five minutes later they went back to solving the matchstick problems, but the problems now involved a different type of insight (see "Type 2" and "Type 3" above). Prior research using this task has shown that only 10% of people can solve these Type 2 problems after first solving the Type 1 problems. Most "normal" participants aren't flexible enough to switch their mental mode; they are too influenced by the earlier rules. In this study, how did those getting their brain zapped fare?

Shockingly, those who received brain stimulation were 3 times more likely (60% vs 20%) to solve the insight problems than those receiving a sham stimulation! As far as the researchers are aware, this is the strongest cognitive enhancement for a brain stimulation study ever shown.

How did it work?

How did the researchers pull off such a feat? Their 'electronic thinking cap' simultaneously decreased excitability of the left anterior temporal lobe (ATL) while increasing the excitability of the right anterior temporal lobe (ATL). To understand why this combination may have boosted insights, it's important to understand what those parts of the brain do.

In the researchers words:

"As an oversimplified caricature, by making our participant's cognitive style less hypothesis driven, less influenced by existing mental templates or context, we might have increased the chance that alternative representations often hidden from conscious awareness (for the sake of efficiency in dealing with the familiar) are considered."

Another possibility is that the improved insight performance was due to the increased excitability in the right ATL. Therefore, rather than reducing mental set effects by messing with the left ATL, the stimulation may have exerted its effects by stimulating the right ATL and thereby directly facilitating the area of the brain associated with insight.

Of course, future research will have to test these possibilities and others to figure out how tDCS is boosting insight. It will likely come down to a number of causes.

Brain Boosters Ready for Prime-Time?

Are scientists ready to sell mini-transcranial direct current stimulation devices to Walgreens? Probably not. tDCS is still controversial and a lot more research is needed [9].

You really can mess with your brain to great effect. Roi Cohen Kadosh and his colleagues at the University of Oxford used transcranial magnetic stimulation (tMS) to disable bits of the brain involved in mathematical reasoning (the right parietal lobe, to be exact). When they did this, participants could barely comprehend mathematics! Excitingly, they were also able to do the reverse. When they applied tDCS to the same part of the brain while simulataneously using the opposite current to lower excitation of the left parietal cortex, participants performed math calculations faster than those given sham stimulation (read about the study here). When tested 6 months later, those who were stimulated still did better than those who weren't zapped! That's 6 months later! Perhaps we could also add buttons to reduce prejudice or a button to suddenly become more logical and focused. I could even imagine a "flow" button where we can suddenly become immensely absorbed in a task!

You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. :) If it weren't for highly innovative and zany researchers such as Allan Snyder, we probably wouldn't even be able to imagine such advances. What I like about Dr. Snyder is not that he confidently makes unrealistic predictions (which he doesn't), but that he has a great curiosity, wonders about exciting possibilities, and then takes concrete, realistic steps toward getting us closer to that understanding.

I believe in the thinking cap, or at least brain enhancement of some sort. And I'm pretty convinced it's going to change education and society. Obviously there will be a lot of ethical issues such a thinking cap will raise. Therefore, even if we are far off from brain stimulation reaching its maximum potential, I say we start the discussion right now.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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[1] Chi, R.P., & Snyder, A.W. (2011). Facilitate insight by non-invasive brain stimulation. PLoS One, 6(2): e16655. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026655

[2] Miller BL, Cummings J, Mishkin F, Boone K, Prince F, et al. (1998) Emergence of artistic talent in frontotemporal dementia. Neurology 51: 978-982.

[3] Young RL, Ridding MC, Morrell TL (2004) Switching skills on by turning off part of the brain. Neurocase 10: 215-222.

[4] Snyder A, Bahramali H, Hawker T, Mitchell DJ (2006) Savant-like numerosity skills revealed in normal people by magnetic pulses. Percepion 35: 837-845.

[5] Snyder A, Mulcahy E, Taylor J, Mitchell D, Sachdev P, et al. (2003) Savant-like skills exposed in normal people by suppressing the left fronto-temporal lobe. J Integr Neurosci 2: 149-158.

[6] Jung-Beeman M, Bowden E, Haberman J, Frymiare J, Arambel-Liu S, et al.
(2004) Neural activity when people solve verbal problems with insight. PLoS Biol
2: 500-510.

[7] Kounios J, Beeman M (2009) The Aha! moment: The cognitive neuroscience of insight. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 18: 210-216.

[8] Pobric G, Mashal N, Faust M, Lavidor M (2008) The role of the right cerebral
hemisphere in processing novel metaphoric expressions: a transcranial magnetic
stimulation study. J Cogn Neurosci 20: 170-181.

[9] Datta A, Bansal V, Diaz J, Patel J, Reato D, et al. (2009) Gyri-precise head model of transcranial direct current stimulation: improved spatial focality using a ring electrode versus conventional rectangular pad. Brain Stimul 2: 201-207, 207 e201.