An Australian neuroscientist has claimed that even a common man can access untapped and hidden powers of cognition by going through a procedure that involves giving electric shocks to the brain.
The word "imagine a creativity cap. A device that would free you, if only momentarily, from your mindsets, from your prejudices, from the mental blocks to creativity" are emblazoned on the website Creativitycap.com, and represent the vision of Allan Snyder.
Snyder, from the University of Sydney, Australia, says he wouldn't be surprised to see a prototype of the creativity cap within a couple of years.
His research suggests that brain stimulation improves people's ability to solve difficult problems. But Snyder's interpretation of his findings remains controversial, and the science of using brain stimulation to boost thinking is still in its early stages.
"I think it's a bit of a minefield," Wired.com quoted psychologist Robyn Young of Flinders University in Australia, who has tried to replicate Snyder's early experiments, as saying.
"I'm not really sure whether the technology is developed that can turn it into a more accurate science," he said.
Snyder has long been fascinated by savants - people with a developmental brain disorder (often autism) or brain injury who display prowess in a particular area, such as mathematics, art or music, which far exceeds the norm.
Other savants acquire their abilities after a severe brain injury or illness. Alonzo Clemons suffered a head injury as a toddler that left him mentally disabled, but endowed him with the ability to accurately sculpt beautiful clay animals after only briefly glimpsing them.
Patients with frontotemporal dementia have been known to suddenly display artistic and musical abilities, like the successful businessman who developed dementia and started doing award-winning painting.
But not all savant abilities come with a trade-off, says savant expert Darold Treffert. Sometimes it's possible for otherwise normal people to have savant skills.
Snyder hypothesizes that all people possess savant-like abilities in a dormant form, but that savants have "privileged access" to less-processed, lower-level information. In a normal brain, top-down controls suppress the barrage of raw data our brains take in, enabling us to focus on the big picture.
Using brain stimulation, he thinks it's possible to temporarily remove that mental suppression and unlock the savant inside each of us. In their latest study, published in April in Neuroscience Letters, Snyder and graduate student ichard Chi tested people's performance on a geometric puzzle called the nine dots problem (right).
The goal is to connect all nine dots using just four straight lines, without lifting your pen up or retracing a line. It's a classic problem that researchers have been giving people for a century, but in the majority of experiments, no participants are able to solve it, even with plenty of time and many attempts.
Snyder and Chi had their subjects attempt to solve the problem while wearing an electrode cap. After a few minutes without brain stimulation, half of the subjects received stimulation while the other half received no stimulation. ere's the interesting part: Whereas none of the subjects solved the problem before brain stimulation, more than 40 percent of subjects in the stimulation group solved the problem after being zapped.
The technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), involves applying a weak electrical current to the scalp through a pair of electrodes on sponges. It's a widely used technique that is considered safe, with minor side effects.
Other researchers have shown cognitive improvements using the same method applied to other brain areas, but Snyder and Chi are the first to use stimulation to mimic savant brain physiology.
Autism, left frontotemporal dementia, and savantism resulting from brain injury have all been associated with deficits in the left hemisphere of the brain.
Though the left brain/right brain skill dichotomy is an oversimplification, they do specialize in function, says Treffert.
The left brain, which is dominant in most people, is more heavily involved in language and reason, while the right brain plays a bigger role in visuospatial and artistic ability.
Scientists theorize that in savants, limitations in left-brain function allow the right brain to compensate. In Snyder and Chi's study, they applied stimulation to suppress brain activity in the left anterior temporal lobe while simultaneously exciting activity in the right anterior temporal lobe.
The study has been published in Neuroscience Letters.