Shock yourself with electricity to find your inner savant

Could electrical impulses pave the way to increasing our mental prowess?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

A glimpse into the future.

Imagine a creativity cap. A device that would free you, if only momentarily, from your mindsets, from your prejudices, from the mental blocks to creativity.

Imagine a creativity cap that would turn on the mind's hidden skills.

Is this a possibility?

That's what the website says at Creativitycap.com, although it didn't stop me immediately associating the product mentally with electric chairs and Frankenstein. The brainchild of Allan Snyder, the neuroscientist takes the view that all humans possess enhanced powers of cognition -- and the only thing we need to do to unlock these treasure troves is give them a little encouragement.

The way to do this? Just a few shocks of electricity to the brain.

Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, Australia, is the creator of a prototype device which does just that. The "Creativity Cap" is the product of research which suggests brain stimulation can improve an individual's ability to solve complex problems; and a way to boost the brain is through electric pulses.

However, the technology is not without controversial roots. Still in a fledgling stage, brain stimulation research and savant studies remain a hazy area of research.

"I think it's a bit of a minefield," said Robyn Young, a psychologist who has tried to replicate Snyder's experimentation. "I'm not really sure whether the technology is developed that can turn it into a more accurate science."

Synder has been fascinated by savants for a very long time. Savants -- those with a developmental brain disorder or develop abilities after a brain injury or illness -- may show incredible prowess in specific areas including art, music, calendar calculating, mathematics and spatial skills. However, there is often a reduction of ability in other areas; including social interaction, adaption to change, or basic life skills.

This is not always the case, but there is often a trade-off. Synder, however, has theorized that all people possess potential savant-like abilities in a dormant form, but savants have access to this dormant area in the brain.

By using brain stimulation, the neuroscientist believes it is possible to temporarily life the mental "block" around this dormant area and reach the savant capabilities of an individual. The latest study, published in April's issue of Neuroscience Letters, Synder and graduate student Richard Chi tested mental performance through geometric puzzles.

The goal of the puzzle was to connect all nine dots using four straight lines, without retracting any lines. Ha the subjects wore a creativity cap, and the other half -- the control group -- relied only on their mental prowess. This is what's interesting: none of the control group managed the puzzle, whereas 40 percent of the creativity cap wearers managed it after receiving a jolt of inspiration.

After reading up on the technique, my original mental images faded away. The procedure, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), applies a weak electrical current to the scalp through electrodes on sponges. It is generally considered safe, with minor side effects -- which may include dizziness, headaches or itching under the electrode.

tDCS has been used in neuroscience studies, but Snyder and Chi are the first to apply it to savant research.

Scientists have previously theorized that limitations in left-brain function -- often the case in developmental conditions such as Autism -- allows the right-side to compensate, potentially 'unlocking' abilities far above the norm. This is exactly what the team did through the creativity cap; suppressing the left side and stimulating activity from the right anterior temporal lobe.

Snyder says that a prototype may be fully developed within the next few years. However, whether the cap would be safe to use after repeated attempts or the effect would remain the same is open to debate.

Interested? Read the latest study: Brain stimulation enables the solution of an inherently difficult problem.

(via Wired)

Image credit: Allan Snyder

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards