Electrical Stimulation to Think Outside of the Box

Scientists at the University of Sydney have used a safe electrical technique to boost our problem-solving abilities...
06 February 2011

Interview with 

Allan Snyder, University of Sydney


Chris -  Scientists have discovered how to create a thinking cap.  I love this!  It helps people to become much more creative.  The work is based on observations that sometimes damage to the front part of the brain's left temporal lobe can disclose extraordinary artistic and musical talents that a patient never knew they had.

Now, Richard Chi and Allan Snyder from the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney have used a non-invasive technique called transcranial direct current stimulation to harmlessly reduce the activity in this front part of the brain which boosted the problem solving abilities of a large group of healthy volunteers.  Allan Snyder...

Allan -   Well, the big picture is inspired by the quote from William Blake, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."  So we were confronting the challenging problem of how to artificially induce a less-filtered view of world, one less constrained by preconceptions.

Chris -   In other words, the world that we see is one tinted by past experience.  You learn something and that informs the way that you interpret the world henceforth.

Allan -   Precisely.  Our perceptions, our memory, our decisions are based left temporal lobeon filtered information.  We view the world, in a sense, "top down" through concepts, through mental templates, which are built up from our past experience.  Of course, these concepts are crucially important for our survival.  They enable us to make rapid predictions about what is most likely, based on only partial information.  But the strategy leaves us susceptible to certain kinds of perceptual and cognitive errors.  Visual illusions, false memories, prejudice, and it makes us inclined to connect the dots in ways that are familiar rather than to explore novel interpretations.

Chris -   Which makes it much harder to think outside the box if you're trying to solve a problem and you're trying to solve a hard problem that other people have grappled with.  There's probably going to be an original solution.  Going down the same wrong road they have is the wrong approach.  You need to think in a new way and if we can find a way to do that, we'd be better off.

Allan -   Yeah.  I mean, it's not the wrong approach.  It's the good approach, but it's not going to work if it doesn't apply.  In other words, our observations of the world and the problems we are talking about are strongly shaped by our preconceptions from previous problems where that didn't work.

Chris -   So how have you tried to get an angle on what the brain is doing and how to get around that problem then?

Allan -   What if we could temporarily inhibit this top down processing and thereby access a level of perception normally hidden from conscious awareness?  Might we be able to have a world which is less preconceived?  Of course, we'd only want to do this temporarily.  We need our conceptual make-up, we don't want to be like an infant, but that's the kind of rationale that's behind our work.

Chris -   So how did you actually tackle this problem?  What did you do?

Allan -   We used safe, non-invasive, transcranial direct current stimulation to inhibit the left anterior temporal lobe - that's an area associated with conceptual processing, labels and categories.  In addition, we simultaneously excited the right anterior temporal lobe - an area associated with insight and novel meaning.  The objective was to temporarily induce a less filtered, less assumption-driven cognitive style.

Chris -   And what did you ask people to whom you were doing this to do, in order to see if they were thinking in a new way or thinking more originally?

Allan -   Well we took a standard problem of insight, a match stick arithmetic visual problem, and we showed them how to do one class of those problems and then asked them to do a much harder problem that required a novel turn, a novel twist, and the people who received direct current stimulation, three times as many as them solved the problem than those in the control group.

Chris -   The argument would be that because you had to think about the problem in a novel way, this suppression of the left side of the brain which normally forces you to think in this hypothesis-led familiar or way informed by familiarity, that having been turned off, they began to think in a novel way and that's what gave them this insight to solve the problem in a new way.

Allan -   Yeah.  That's the way we look at it.

Chris -   So now you've found this, what's the next step?  Is it to say right, "can we try and apply this to other modalities?"  So that's a problem-solving task, it's part visual, part cognition.  Are you now going to start looking at other things that might be informed by the same strategy?

Allan -   You're right.  Every sensory modality uses the top down process.  So, we indeed have been trying to think about other experiments we could do that would illustrate this concept, and we have a few in mind.

Chris -   Maybe you need to stimulate your brain to suppress it to attune the left antero-temporal lobe to see what comes out.  But practically speaking, could you use this for anything?  Do you think musicians should plug themselves in?  Should mathematicians grappling with tough problems plug themselves in like this, to see if they can free their mind?

Allan -   Richard Chi and I suggested that it might be a "thinking cap".  The concept about a thinking cap, I think many people regard a thinking cap as something that might be a Google retriever, but we don't need that because we have Google.  What we really need in the future is a way to connect seemingly disparate pieces of information into a new synthesis.  In other words, to look at things afresh and that is what I would hope a thinking cap could give us - a creativity enhancer in that sense and yes, this is something that could be used in the future.  It's a very simple device.  It uses a 9-volt battery.  What we need to do is try to optimise the configuration of stimulation on the brain, we need to think about the time interval that we want to expose people to, there are many variables here to optimise this, once you accept the reality or the proof of principle.

Chris -   I think I could use one of those thinking caps.  That was Professor Allan Snyder who is the Director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, and he published that work in the journal PLoS One.


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