A Truly Effective Thinking Cap
For all of you readers -- like Thomas Pynchon and me -- who are slow learners, there's hope! Dan Hurley, in "Jumper Cables for the Mind" (The New York Times Magazine, November 1, 2013), reports astonishing findings from the world of science on something called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). No, sorry, there's nothing about transcranial alternating-current stimulation even though that would've made for a better acronym (tACS). Anyway, the electrifying news is that weak volts of electricity to the scalp can enhance your learning and stimulate hair growth. Okay, I lied about hair growth, but the enhanced learning is true. This is no bolt from the blue, either! Research goes back thirty years:
In 1981, Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, reported that by applying extremely low doses of direct-current electricity -- one-third of a milliamp, not enough to power a hearing aid -- to the heads of healthy volunteers, he could speed their response on a simple test of reaction time.But other scientists -- doubtless needing scalp stimulation themselves -- were slow to react to Birbaumer's findings and conduct experiments of their own, with over a decade passing before more work was done, this time by a certain A. Priori, whose work not only confirmed Birbaumer's but, in doing so, also demonstrated that one's name is not necessarily one's fate:
The Italian neurophysiologist Alberto Priori began his own experiments in 1992, applying just a tiny bit more electricity, about half a milliamp. He found that enough of the electricity crossed through volunteers' skulls -- electrons flowing from the cathodal electrode to the anodal electrode -- to cause brain cells near the anodal to become excited.But those other scientists couldn't get excited over Priori's findings:
Despite repeating the experiment multiple times to be sure of the results, it took Priori six years to get his findings published in a scientific journal, in 1998. As he told me, "People kept telling me it can't be true, it's too easy and simple."Finally, though, those other scientists began to focus on the findings:
One of the first researchers to take Priori's results seriously was Michael A. Nitsche, a clinical neurophysiologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany. "There were two lines of criticism that I heard in those days," Nitsche said. "One line was that it couldn't work, because it's a very weak stimulation and it couldn't get through the cranium. The other was that it should be very dangerous." [But in] . . . a paper published in 2000, Nitsche showed that the stimulating influence of tDCS lasts for at least five minutes after the electricity stops flowing [and with no harm done to scalp or brain].Since then, there has been an overwhelming current of confirming results, including data showing enhancement not only of reaction time but also of various cognitive functions. But how can such a tiny jolt of electricity to the scalp for a few minutes improve our thinking? Hurley asked Roy Hoshi Hamilton, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation. Hamilton began with a question:
"What is a thought? . . . A thought is what happens when some pattern of firing of neurons has happened in your brain. So if you have a technology that makes it ever so slightly easier for lots and lots of these neurons, these fundamental building blocks of cognition, to be active, to do their thing, then it doesn't seem so far-fetched that such a technology, be it ever so humble, would have an effect on cognition . . . . There's this mantra in neuroscience, coined by Donald Hebb: Neurons that fire together wire together. So I have this tool that makes it more or less likely your neurons will fire. Now, while I'm applying the current, I'm going to have you engage in some behavior, a working-memory task, say, or attempting to name objects even though you have aphasia following a stroke, which is my area of interest. So now that network of neurons is being activated in an environment that slightly nudges it, makes it slightly easier for the neurons to fire and the behaviors to be successfully carried out. Then it's not too far-fetched that, when that happens over and over again, during weeks of practice, those pathways will be reinforced."That sounds plausible, so I might need to get myself one of those thinking caps and learn to 'cerebrate' the body electric . . .