Electrifying! How science can make you smarter

New research has shown that electric currents can enhance your thinking. But should we really use technology to boost our brainpower?

When people tell you to 'get your thinking cap on,' they usually don't mean it literally. But new research from Australian scientists has brought a real, physical 'thinking cap' one step closer, after proving that electrical stimulation of the brain can help students to solve complicated problems and 'think outside the box.'

Alan Snyder, a neuroscientist at the University of Sydney, used a special cap to send tiny electric currents through the brain, stimulating the area that produces new insights while dampening activity in an area linked with conceptual processing and categorising.

Volunteers who were subjected to the electric currents did better in tests where they needed to make an imaginative leap to solve a problem.

This brain stimulation technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), has also been used to improve people's learning of maths. Roi Cohen Kadosh, who reported the maths findings, called the new research 'exciting evidence that the technique can also be used to enhance innovative thinking.'

But tDCS isn't the only way to improve a person's mental performance. Anyone who has a coffee at work, or drinks alcohol to calm their nerves, is trying to enhance some aspect of their cognitive function.

And more recently, a whole range of performance enhancing drugs have become fashionable.

Ritalin, used to treat ADHD, helps students concentrate in exams. Donepezil can help pilots fly better. Modafinil, a medicine for the sleep disorder narcolepsy, boosts alertness.

These drugs are only available on prescription and weren't designed for non-medical use. But students at elite US universities and executives in high-powered jobs have been getting them from doctors or illegally from friends' prescriptions.

No one knows what the side effects might be for prolonged non-medical use of these drugs. Some can be addictive, or cause heart problems. But in highly competitive environments, some people will do anything that gives them that extra edge.

Good thinking
Professor John Harris, of the University of Manchester, is excited about these new technologies. 'It's not rational' he says, 'to be against human enhancement.' If we can make ourselves stronger, faster or smarter, why shouldn't we?

But Anjan Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania warns of 'cognitive trade-offs.' Ritalin, for example, makes people sharper at the expense of creativity, and as Chatterjee points out, 'being smarter does not mean being wiser.'

You Decide

  1. What's the difference between being smart and being wise? Which is more important?
  2. Is it ok to use technology to improve human performance? What are the potential risks and rewards?

Activities

  1. Imagine a society where some people had access to advanced mental-enhancement technology and others didn't. Write a plot outline for a sci-fi movie set in that society.
  2. Drugs and technology can enhance some mental abilities while decreasing others. Ritalin, for example, can decrease creativity as it enhances concentration. Design a poster showing some different mental attributes. Are there situations where changing the balance might be a good idea? Why is balance important?

Some People Say...

“Messing with people's minds is totally wrong.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So technology can make you more intelligent?
Not exactly. Drugs and tDCS can make you better at certain tasks, but often there's a trade-off.
Meaning what?
Meaning that you get better at some things but worse at others. The brain is a finely balanced system. You can throw off the balance but it's harder to raise the overall level.
But if technology makes me better at exams, isn't that good news?
Only if exams are all you care about. That said, there are definitely situations where cognitive enhancement would be useful. For example: fighter pilots need to be alert when they fly.A In exams, people worry that technology could give an unfair advantage. Drugs and tDCS aren't easy to get hold of, so only some people would be able to use them, putting the rest of us at a disadvantage.

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