Electric Thinking Cap Controls Learning Speed

Psychologists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee create an actual thinking cap.

Scientists might just be paving the way to a generation of Sherlocks – or Sheldon Coopers

It’s common lore that scientists lack a sense of humor. But this time, they’ve taken the cake.  Their latest invention – the thinking cap – takes a very literal interpretation on our patronizing teacher’s favorite phrase.

On a serious note though, this is a fantastic experiment with interesting finds. It focuses on our inner-critic. That same inner-critic or perfectionist that nags us on the inside every single time we make an awkward mistake. That’s a scientific process.  Whenever we make a mistake, an automatic “oh crap” reaction is triggered in our brains within milliseconds which is brought on by a spike of negative voltage brainwaves in the medial-front cortex.

Now, two psychologists from Vanderbilt University believe that this increase in negative voltage plays a key role in learning, allowing the brain to learn from mistakes. This hypothesis formed the whole basis of their consequent research.

The psychologists Robert Reinhart and Geoffrey Woodman wanted to better understand how this instinctive reaction affects human behavior. Hence, they designed a cap that channels a low-level current to the brain to replicate the negative voltage. They suggest that this plays a key role in learning, allowing the brain to learn from mistakes.

The Thinking Cap Can Silence Your Inner Critic

After executing well-thought out research, promising results were revealed. When the thinking cap transmitted the brain waves, people made fewer mistakes and bounced back from their mistakes quicker than they did without any electrical stimulation.

How Did the Research Work

Each participant took part in three sessions:

- One where the current was transmitted from the electrode on the crown of the head to the one on the cheek

- One where it was transmitted in the opposite direction

- One where there was no stimulation to the brain, but the subjects noted a tingling sensation.

Note: Participants weren’t able to tell the difference between the three conditions.

After 20 minutes, participants were given a learning task which involved heavy trial and error. This trial and error obviously meant that subjects would have to make mistakes and try to quickly learn and move past them, allowing the researchers genuine results. The subjects had to identify which buttons on a game controller related to specific colors displayed on a monitor – within a second.

When the first current was applied to the ‘thinking hat’ the spike was almost twice as high on average.

This influenced participants to make fewer errors and learn more rapidly from mistakes compared to results in the absence of electrical stimulation.

Now when the second current type was applied, the opposite result was noted.

Not Your Conventional Hat

No, it doesn’t look like a helmet. It’s actually a headband with two electrodes attached to the check and crown of a person’s head.

A Treatment for Schizophrenia and ADHD?

This instrument offers great promise in the treatment of mental conditions.

Mr. Reinhart said ‘So when we up-regulate that process, we can make you more cautious, less error-prone, more adaptable to new or changing situations, which is pretty extraordinary,’

As well as improving learning, the findings of the experiment could one day be used to treat conditions like schizophrenia and ADHD, which are associated with performance-monitoring deficits.