What can you do with a rolling pin?

25 June 2009


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1.       Look at this everyday object.



2.       Now answer these questions:



-          What is this and what do you typically use it for?



-          You have 30 seconds to come up with as many other uses for this everyday object.



-          You can put some answers on the discussion thread below.



Which part of the brain is responsible?

The right side of the prefrontal cortex

What should happen?

You might struggle to come up with some other uses for this everyday object, but people typically come up with between 3-5 alternative ways to use the item.

You can test yourself with other everyday objects.


Why is this happening?

Our minds have evolved to solve certain problems effortlessly, yet we struggle to solve others that require us to 'think outside the box'. This everyday object task is an example of thinking outside the box, thinking creatively.

Why do scientists study this?

Can you stimulate people to think outside the box and come up with more solutions by tweaking with the activity of the brain? Yes! And in doing so, you can learn more about how the brain works.

We already know that the brain works using electrical activity. There are about 100 billion (1011) nerve cells in the brain and about 1000 trillion (1015) connections between them. That's a lot! In order to get a handle on how much this is, let's take just one small cubic millimetre of human brain tissue, packed in there, is more than 1 million nerve cells (106) and 1 billion (109) connections. Phew! And in order to give us our view of the world, to think and to move, these nerve cells send signals to each other. How is this information encoded?  The answer is that it's encoded by electronic pulses.  So they're very brief, rapid, up and down changes of electrical potential that lasts for 1/1000th of a second, travelling up and down the nerve cells, which are connected to each other.

Sharon Thompson-Schill and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, Used this information to change the way people behave. They electrically tweaked people's brains to induce better scores in the above task and published their results in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, March 2013.

They took 48 volunteers and they presented them with 60 everyday objects, like the rolling pin, for 9 seconds and measured the time it took for volunteers to say what the item is typically used for, or what could be a novel use for the object. 

What the researchers wanted to do was to find out if they could make people more creative, to come out-of-the-box creative ways of using that rolling pin or other devices.  So, in order to foster creativity in their volunteers, they decided to electrically shock, apply a small electric current, just 1.5 milliamps or 1.5 thousandth of an amp of current to the left side of their brains and also had a control group where they applied the same current to the right side of the front of the brain, and also, a control group that just had this placebo effect.  So, they just had a very small electric stimulus right in the middle, just for a very small amount of time.

They were stimulating the pre-frontal cortex, the bit just behind your forehead that's involved in cognitive thoughts - so learning, reasoning, planning, flexibility, and thought.  And the left side of the brain, the left hemisphere is thought to be involved in more linear kind of thought and the right side is thought to be involved in more kind of global kind of creative thinking.

Amazingly, they did see quite a dramatic change in the creativity as measured by this task, when they were applying a small inhibitory electrical current to the left side of the brain - so, by inhibiting the left pre-frontal cortex, they actually increased creativity in these volunteers, they took less time to come up with the novel use for the everyday object!

This tells us that the pre-frontal cortex and in particular, the left side is usually involved in filtering information and kind of dampening down how your brain works.  So, this study really unifies that hypothesis.

So, do you think we should all wander around with little electrical thought caps on our heads when we need to be creative? Are their implications for this research for educational policy or the workplace? We'd love to know what you think about this, you can comment below.

The Risky Part: what to be aware of and how to keep the science safe:




Risk to Audience

Risk to Presenter

Control Measures

Residual Risk to Audience

Residual Risk to Presenter

What can you do with a Rolling Pin?


None as long as you do not attempt to apply an electric current to your head at home







Extra information and references:


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