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The Idea of Electric Jolts

June 9, 2014

new-paper-cut-illustration-eiko-ojala-10Can electrical jolts to the brain produce Eureka moments?
By Ed Yong, 2011

Finding those Eureka moments that allow us to solve difficult problems can be an electrifying experience, but rarely like this. Richard Chi and Allan Snyder managed to trigger moments of insight in volunteers, by using focused electric pulses to block the activity in a small part of their brains. After the pulses, people were better at solving a tricky puzzle by thinking outside the box.

This is the latest episode in Snyder’s quest to induce extraordinary mental skills in ordinary people. A relentless eccentric, Snyder has a long-lasting fascination with savants – people like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, who are remarkably gifted at tasks like counting objects, drawing in fine detail, or memorising vast sequences of information.

Snyder thinks that everyone has these skills but they’re typically blocked by a layer of conscious thought. By stripping away that layer, using electric pulses or magnetic fields, we could theoretically release the hidden savant in all of us. Snyder has been doggedly pursuing this idea for many years, with the goal of producing a literal “thinking cap”. He has had some success across several studies, but typically involving small numbers of people.

His latest publication continues this theme. He used a “matchstick maths” challenge, where several sticks had been arranged to form Roman numerals and mathematical symbols. The player has to rearrange just one stick so the equation makes sense. There are three such puzzles and all require very different solutions, as you can see in the image below.

These problems are challenging because our experiences can blind us to new ways of thinking. Once we learn how to solve one matchstick puzzle, we try to apply the same method to the others. We find it harder to come up with answers that require different lines of thought.

Chi and Snyder got around this problem by literally giving people a jolt to the brain. They asked 60 volunteers to solve the matchstick problems while running a weak electric current across their scalp, targeting an area called the anterior temporal lobe (ATL). In one group, they used the current to increase the activity on the left ATL while reducing the activity of the right half. In the second, they swapped sides. In the third, they turned the current up slightly but rapidly brought it back to zero. In all the cases, they carefully controlled the current so that the volunteers couldn’t feel any noticeable tingling sensations.

After doing 27 variants of the first matchstick problem, where they had to change an X into a V, the volunteers had to solve a problem from the second category. And they did much better with this new problem if Chi and Snyder had enhanced their right ATL while blocking their left. After six minutes, around 60% of them had solved the puzzle. That’s three times the proportion of the other two groups, where only 20% could solve the problem. They got similar results when they tested the volunteers on puzzles from the third category.

These are intriguing experiments, but they can be easily misinterpreted. Chi and Snyder have shown that by stimulating the brain with electricity, they can successfully free the mind from mental blocks or fixed ways of thinking. Snyder quotes the economist John Maynard Keynes who said, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify…into every corner of our mind.”

But does this equate to “insight” or “creativity”? Andrea Kuszewski, a neuroscientist who studies creativity, says, “They aren’t actually measuring creativity. They are artificially inducing a “clear your head and start over” type of strategy. But just because you are open to new ideas doesn’t mean you’ll actually get one.”

Nor does this mean that the ATL is the source of Eureka moments. The sort of electrical stimulation that Chi and Snyder used isn’t a precise technique and it’s unlikely that the current only affected the ATL. Arne Dietrich, who studies the neuroscience of creativity at the American University of Beirut, says, “Creativity and insight do not depend on one specific brain area (the light bulb theory, as I call it).”

However, he adds, “It’s important that the duo targeted the ATL. Most other researchers have focused on a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.” Indeed, other scientists have found that people with damage to the prefrontal cortex do better with the varied matchstick problems than those with everything intact. Chi and Snyder want to see if they could get even stronger effects by targeting both areas at the same time.

And what of the fact that Snyder only boosted insight by deactivating the left ATL? He writes that the right half of the brain is linked to insight and novelty. It’s involved in updating old ideas, while the left half is involved in maintaining them. Knock out the left and you let the right do its thing – it can find new ideas because it’s unrestrained by old ones.

But this veers dangerously close to the popular myth that the right brain is creative and artistic while the left is logical and deductive. In truth, virtually every complex thing we do depends on both halves of the brain, working together and complementing one another.

Kuszewski says, “For creative thinking to take place, there needs to be recruitment from both sides, not just the right. Stimulation of the right side (and inhibiting the left) is sort of like a kick in the pants, so your brain stops being so inflexible. That’s really all it does, and it’s temporary. No lasting creative effects.” Indeed, in Chi and Snyder’s experiment, the volunteers also did better at solving the third group of matchstick problems no matter which half of their ATL was shut down.

Dietrich agrees. “There are too many other studies showing the exact opposite, which we have painstakingly documented. This effect depends mostly on the type of insight problem one uses. For verbal tasks, as was the case here, it makes sense that inhibition to the left does the trick. But that can’t be generalized, at all, to insight as a whole.”

All in all, it’s an interesting study especially because it produced such a large improvement. But even Chi and Snyder admit that the results are difficult to interpret. That thinking cap is still a long way off. Dietrich says, “Non-invasive ways of facilitating insightful problem solving, if technologically refined, can be a game changer in many realms of society – think military, business, art or scientific discovery. But this is a long, long way away. The technique is messy, to say the least. So, it is best to stay grounded on this one for now.”

So for now, shooting yourself in the head with a taser isn’t going to turn you into the next Leonardo da Vinci. It might turn you into the next Justin Bieber though…

Reference: Chi, R., & Snyder, A. (2011). Facilitate Insight by Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016655


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