Electric hats could one day make us more creative, research suggests

A weak electric current boosted thinking 'outside the box' but researchers say 'we are not yet in a position' to use the technique routinely

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The Independent Online

Passing an electric current through the brain can help people be more creative, according to new research.

Scientists found that suppressing an area of the brain involved in thinking and reasoning helped people to “think outside the box” when trying to solve complicated problems.

While the research suggests people could one day wear an electrically charged hat to make them smarter, the scientist stressed this was not possible at the moment and cautioned against claims by companies selling such devices.

In the study, 60 people, all right-handed and aged between 18 and 34, were asked to solve ‘matchstick problems’ after having electricity passed through the brain area in one direction, which stimulated it, or the opposite direction, which suppressed it, or without having any electricity at all.

In such problems, matchsticks are laid out to form an incorrect arithmetical statement in Roman numerals and must be moved a limited number of times to make the statement accurate. These can be difficult particular when people need to relax rules of arithmetic and algebra they were taught in school.

The electric current was weak enough not to cause any unpleasant feeling, but it did have an effect the participants’ minds.

While stimulating part of the brain involved in reasoning might be expected to boost performance, it actually had no effect on the performance in the test.

But suppressing the area, called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or DLPFC, resulted in a significant improvement because it helped the participants think in a different way to normal.

One of the researchers, Dr Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, of Queen Mary, University of London, said: “We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process.

“It works fine most of the time, but fails spectacularly when we encounter new problems which require a new style of thinking – our past experience can indeed block our creativity.

“To break this mental fixation, we need to loosen up our learned rules.”

A paper about the study in the journal Scientific Reports said the DLPFC role in applying previously learned rules was usually an efficient way of solving problems.

But it added: “This process fails when we encounter new problems in which past experience leads to a mental rut. Learned rules could therefore act as constraints which need to be removed in order to change the problem representation for producing the solution.”

Suppressing the DLPFC had the effect of removing the mind from its mental rut, allowing the participants to see a hard matchstick problem in a different, less obvious way.

But it also made people worse at solving problems which involved a high number of matchstick moves, increasing the demand on working memory.

“These results are important because they show the potential of improving mental functions relevant for creativity by non-invasive brain stimulation methods,” Dr Luft said.

But she said effect of “transcranial direct current stimulation” (tDCS) was more complicated that some companies selling devices suggested.

“Our results also suggest that potential applications of this technique will have to consider the target cognitive effects in more detail rather than just assuming tDCS can improve cognition as claimed by some companies that are starting to sell tDCS machines for home users,” she said.

“I would say that we are not yet in a position to wear an electrical hat and start stimulating our brain hoping for a blanket cognitive gain.”

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