The "Thinking Cap" Could Soon Go From Figure Of Speech to Actual Real Object

The "thinking cap" may soon change from a figure of speech to literal Thing That Exists: researchers at Vanderbilt University have used electrical current to stimulate experimental participants' brains, causing them to learn more effectively. That electrical current was provided via — you guessed it — a special, wearable cap:

Using an elastic headband that secured two electrodes conducted by saline-soaked sponges to the cheek and the crown of the head, the researchers applied 20 minutes of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to each subject. In tDCS, a very mild direct current travels from the anodal electrode, through the skin, muscle, bones and brain, and out through the corresponding cathodal electrode to complete the circuit.

Following a 20-minute brain zapping session (or control group treatments of misplaced current or ineffective fake head tingles only), participants played a timed computer game in which they were asked to match colors on the screen to their corresponding buttons, with other commands mixed in to make it harder. They were connected to brain activity monitors while playing the game, and researchers noticed:

When anodal current was applied, the [brain activity] spike [from making a mistake] was almost twice as large on average and was significantly higher in a majority of the individuals tested ... This was reflected in their behavior; they made fewer errors and learned from their mistakes more quickly than they did after the sham stimulus.

So basically stimulation from the thinking cap can make you "more cautious, less error-prone, more adaptable to new or changing situations." The outcome of these shifts is more and better learning — and the effects of the thinking cap seemed to apply to other activities too, lasting for five hours (which is very good news indeed, because I doubt that thinking cap is presentable to wear outside the house). Although the press release suggested that the thinking cap could be used for study sessions in lieu of caffeine, I like the prospect of combining them for additional cognitive benefits. Perhaps a thinking cap complete with built-in coffee dispenser is in order?

Unfortunately, although these results are promising, it'll probably be quite a while before you can purchase your very own thinking cap for ordinary use. In particular, I would assume that there are certain liability issues associated with selling a product designed to pump electricity straight into consumers' heads. But, until the thinking cap hits the market, there are plenty of less science fiction-like strategies you can try for learning more effectively.