Put your thinking cap on… takes on new meaning as Vanderbilt built a thinking cap

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) has become a widely used technique for reaching into a person’s brain and altering the way in which it functions. Vanderbilt psychology Professor Geoffrey Woodman and graduate student Robert Reinhart have just published the results of a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience in which they found that tDCS stimulation of the mediofrontal cortex for a period of minutes can change one’s ability to recognize and learn from error for a period of several hours.

TERRANCE GAVAN – GAV ON TECH COLUMN

“Gavan! Put your thinking cap on!”

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Remember when Mrs. McGuilicuddy, your first grade teacher, told you to put your thinking cap on? Who knew she was Nostradamus.

Remember when Mrs. McGuilicuddy, your first grade teacher, told you to put your thinking cap on? Who knew she was Nostradamus.

How many times?

Through elementary and high school have I heard that admonition?

Well, the genies (geniuses?) at Vanderbilt University have decided to blend fact and admonition.

They have invented a real life thinking cap.

 

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(From the study and the story found on Gizmag) Our brains work on electro-chemical currents passing through and between nerve cells. The patterns of neurons firing in the brain run the body, and are sometimes experienced as thoughts. The process of learning involves training the brain to prefer some patterns of neuron activity over others.

A catchphrase for how this takes place in practice is “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, repeatedly exposing one’s self to experiences with a common theme will make the corresponding firing patterns of the neurons more and more likely to show up in related situations. The process can of course be taken too far, as with the man with a hammer to whom every problem is a nail.

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Malcolm Gladwell, everyone’s favorite go to guy on things zeitgeist, told us once, twice, ad infinitum, that muscle memory and neuron memory requires practice, practice, practice.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall. Take a cab, asshole, and ask the driver. No one plays Carnegie Hall anymore. So who really cares. The real answer is practice of course.

And Gladwell came up with an “outlier” strategy (which I call the outright liar theory) that postulates the threshold for elite status on a topic or a talent is 10,000 hours.

I’m not cranking on Gladwell here, but I wish everyone would just get over their fascination with this huggable Canuck who looks like a cross between Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo.

And so please people. Put on your thinking caps!

Gladwell is a nice guy and I have even read him in bits and pieces. But to use 10,000 hours as the touchstone for expertise? Is a little disingenuous.

Here’s what this new device is telling us.

It’s telling us that we learn from making mistakes and there is no time limit set on this very cogent neuron-snapping learning curve. To pin 10,000 hours on it and then have every Tom, Dick and Pundit use it as a baseline for success? It’s a tad overindulgent isn’t it?

Anyway, I’m not telling Gladwell to put on his thinking cap, or wait… maybe I am. I do know that I want one of these thinking caps.

Nay. I need a thinking cap. I’m a wee bit ADD and I’m taking Wellbutrin and Citalopram to reign back the impulses in my brain that take me from my web design project and into the tree and that family of robin red breasts. Wait! Chipmunk! I see a chipmunk!

Where were we? Ah yes. Thinking caps. Please sift the info here. What these guys are doing is sending a current into the brains of some willing hamsters. And checking how those electrical shocks are working regarding motor skills and reaction times. Only these are not hamsters. They’re real humans. Vanderbilt students, acting as willing guinea pigs. In lieu of a better metaphor we will hearken author Jon Ronson and Men who Stare at Goats and recall a time when government institutions(CIA)  were engaging in freelance experiments with LSD, Peyote, Mushrooms and other nifty detours… with human beings.

It is clear from the results of the Vanderbilt study that the brain does a good job of learning responding to error and figuring out what to do about it (not a new result.) However, the extent to which tDCS stimulation of the anterior cingulate cortex can rather increase or decrease that capability is surprising, especially considering that the individuals who participated in the study already were functioning at a high cognitive level.

Will the near future include visions of tDCS units dancing through the brains of students and those of us who can’t remember an appointment or a name to save our lives? Considering that tests of the influence of tDCS on a number of memory, motor, and cognitive functions report about the same doubling of ability, this seems a likely scenario. However, there is little evidence that tDCS can improve overall intellectual functioning, so don’t expect to transform into a prodigy.

The legal position on tDCS is not entirely clear. tDCS stimulators may already be illegal in Nevada if used to improve one’s ability to count cards in blackjack.

Whew… I am intrigued. I need a goddam thinking cap. Where can I get one?

Joe Citizen can have tDCS technology given only a 9 volt battery, a 1 to 2 ma current regulator diode (about US$2 at major electronics suppliers), a bit of wire, and something (wet sponges seem to be popular) to use as electrodes. About five dollars and half an hour of fiddling puts one in the game. In the end, tDCS is likely to be an extremely difficult genie to shove back in the bottle.

I’m in!

Squirrel!

Where are my pills!

Wellbutrin!

terrancegavan is a writer.

 

 

 

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