Your Brain on Electricity: Does It Make You Learn Faster?

Andrew Lampard
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Your Brain on Electricity: Does It Make You Learn Faster?

It’s midnight the night before a final exam, and you just opened a book for the first time. Cramming at this hour will probably take most of the night and yield unpredictable results.

For those unfortunate students who have found themselves in that foxhole, the following revelation is for you: psychologists have invented a “thinking cap” that could help you learn faster.

In March cognitive psychologists at Vanderbilt University published a report in the Journal of Neuroscience showing that we can alter our learning ability by pulling and pushing a gentle and minute amount of electrical current through the brain for 20 minutes.

The experiment uses two electrodes, one on the subject’s cheek and one on her crown, secured by an elastic headband -- “the cap.” While this technique is non-invasive, the report’s authors cautioned that this experiment must only be conducted inside a lab setting with scientists trained with the proper equipment.

The current’s direction is the primary factor, said Robert Reinhart, a Vanderbilt Ph.D. candidate, who worked with Geoffrey Woodman, assistant professor of psychology, on the report. They found that when they directed the current from the crown electrode to the cheek electrode, subjects made fewer errors on a video game test and learned from their mistakes.

Alternatively, the reverse effect was noticeable when the current ran in the opposite direction. “When you flip the direction of the current flow,” Reinhart said, subjects displayed “smaller performance monitoring brain activity and slower learning.”

Individuals that showed bidirectional effects comprised about 75 percent of their subject sample. According to Reinhart, effects from the 20 minute charge lasted for approximately five hours. Watch the video above to see how the experiment was conducted.

Unfortunately, it will be some time, if ever, before these caps are available on the market. “In terms of science it’s fantastic,” Reinhart said, “but in terms of the average person on the street who want to boost their mental functions -- for that, more research needs to be done.”