Feb. 3, 2011 -- Telling students to "put their thinking caps on" to solve a tough problem may not always be a metaphorical suggestion. Researchers in Australia found that fitting participants with a "cap" that delivered weak electrical current to the scalp made them three times more likely to be able to quickly solve a complex riddle.
While only 20 percent of participants could figure out a complex problem in the six minutes allowed under normal circumstances, 60 percent of participants who were given the electric current were able.
The experiment used a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Two sponge electrodes soaked in salt water were applied to the scalp to deliver a weak current to targeted parts of the brain. Researchers designed the device to suppress activity in the left anterior temporal lobe (ATL) while enhancing activity in the corresponding right side.
Study authors chose to manipulate these areas of the brain because past evidence suggests the left ATL is associated with problem solving with known, tried-and-true methods, while the right ATL is associated with new ways of problem solving, or "thinking outside the box."
"The brain is always trying to find a balance between exploration and exploitation, that is, between looking for new ways of solving problems or utilizing what it has already figured out," says David Eagleman, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine.
"Essentially these competing approaches are always battling it out in our brain. What this study shows is that you can tip the balance of this battle in favor of exploring new possibilities."
While this research won't lead to the practical use of such a "thinking cap" any time soon, researchers feel this discovery opens doors in our understanding of how our brains can better solve problems.
Weird Science: Shocking the Brain into Creativity
Because researchers delivered current to enhance the right side of the brain while suppressing activity in the left, it's difficult to say whether the increased problem-solving ability came from holding back the left brain, helping the right brain, or a combination of the two, write authors Richard Chi and Allan Snyder of the Centre for the Mind in Sydney, Australia.
The theory behind this procedure taps into current understanding of the way our brain attacks problems it faces in the environment, which suggests that the ever-elusive "outside-the-box" creative solutions to problems may be hindered by our brain's tendency to rely on known, old ways to solve problems.
"The only way any animal can get by, humans included, is using what it has learned in the past and coming up with new solutions," says Eagleman. "If you were an animal in the wild trying to constantly come up with new solutions to every problem you face, you'd probably starve to death."
The left brain's ability to tap into known patterns of problem-solving "is great for linear type of cognitive function and it's very reliable," says Dr. Nicholos Boulis, a neurosurgeon at Emory University. "At the same time, this type of thinking is circumscribed and tends to run the whole way. By releasing the right side of the brain, you are able to see more cognitive flexibility."
So, the theory goes, when participants were given a riddle that required them to look at one organization of matchsticks and create a new pattern out of them, they did it more easily if researchers got the left brain "out of the way" by suppressing it with electric current, while boosting the right brain with a different kind of current.
And it worked.
But this doesn't mean that an actual thinking cap that you would strap on your head when you needed to be extra creative is in the cards, Boulis warns.
"They're using technology to look at how the brain works," says Boulis. "The real significance of this is that it provides support for the idea that the left temporal lobe function tends to utilize well-trodden path of problem solving and has a hard time jumping out of that pattern."
While it's fun to speculate about whether this gets us closer to being able to control which side of brain is dominant, such a possibility is "very unlikely" in the near future, he says. "But with this type of technology you can imagine a future in which this type of approach might be feasible."