Sending electricity through the brain to become more creative? I can already see some salesmen with dollar signs in their eyes scratching their head how to turn this research into a business model as Scientists have found a way to improve creativity through brain stimulation. And good news: for this they sent a weak constant electrical current through saline-soaked electrodes positioned over target regions in the scalp, which means there is no need to open the skull :). And for those salesmen, do read the last paragraph of this press release:
They achieved this by temporarily suppressing a key part of the frontal brain called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is involved in most of our thinking and reasoning.
The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, show that participants who received the intervention showed an enhanced ability to ‘think outside the box’.
“We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process,” commented Dr Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, first author from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences who conducted the research while previously working at Goldsmiths University of London, with Dr Michael Banissy and Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya.
“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,” added Dr Luft.
The researchers used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involved passing a weak constant electrical current through saline-soaked electrodes positioned over the scalp to modulate the excitability of the DLPFC. Depending on the direction of the current flow, DLPFC was temporarily suppressed or activated. The very low currents applied ensured that it would not cause any harm or unpleasant sensation.
Sixty participants were tested on their creative problem solving ability before and after receiving one of the following interventions: DLPFC being suppressed, DLPFC being activated, and DLPFC being unstimulated. The participants solved “matchstick problems,” some of which are hard, because to solve these problems, participants need to relax the learnt rules of arithmetic and algebra.
The participants whose DLPFC was temporarily suppressed by the electrical stimulation were more likely to solve hard problems than other participants whose DLPFC was activated or not stimulated. This demonstrates that suppressing DLPFC briefly can help breaking mental assumptions learned from experience and thinking outside the box.
But the researchers also observed that these participants got worse at solving problems with a higher working memory demand (where many items are needed to be held in mind at once). These problems require the participants to try a number of different moves until finding the solution, which means they have to keep track of their mental operations.
“These results are important because they show the potential of improving mental functions relevant for creativity by non-invasive brain stimulation methods,” commented Dr Luft.
“However, 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 which are starting to sell tDCS machines for home users,” she added.
“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.”
Abstract of the study:
We solve problems by applying previously learned rules. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) plays a pivotal role in automating this process of rule induction. Despite its usual efficiency, 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. We investigated the possibility of suppressing the DLPFC by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to facilitate such representational change. Participants solved matchstick arithmetic problems before and after receiving cathodal, anodal or sham tDCS to the left DLPFC. Participants who received cathodal tDCS were more likely to solve the problems that require the maximal relaxation of previously learned constraints than the participants who received anodal or sham tDCS. We conclude that cathodal tDCS over the left DLPFC might facilitate the relaxation of learned constraints, leading to a successful representational change.