Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The machine that makes us smarter

To date, we have reported on many things we can do in order to become smarter: socialise, exercise our body and mind (for example our working memory), eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep so that our brain can perform optimally, and so on. The problem is: all of these measures require effort and patience. But what if a machine could make us smarter? Just in the very moment in which we need to be smart?

Researchers from The Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had subjects in their study play a virtual reality game, then let them train the game while applying a light electrical current to their scalps and then assessed their performance on this game once more. The training results of this group were better compared to one that had trained the task without the current (in this control group, only the electrodes had been applied, but the current had been extremely weak). The authors conclude that the electrical stimulation causes structural changes in the brain and therefore enhances learning. The results are in line with other findings that applying an electrical current to the brain enhances working memory. The original article was published in the journal Experimental Brain Research.

There is a detailed article on such studies on the website SingularityHUB. The alternative explanation for the findings reported in this article are well worth considering: maybe it is not so much the fact that the electrical current changes structures in the brain that accounts for the improvements in working memory and thus performance, but rather the pain the current causes that makes us more alert. Attention seems to account for many findings on the performance of our brain. For example, some time ago we reported on the phenomenon of “decision fatigue”: making decision requires willpower, and once we become exhausted, we make bad decisions. But then we learned that this decision fatigue can well be overridden by, guess what, motivation and attention.

Thus, the ability to draw attention to a certain task and to maintain this attention is likely to be a key to performing well on decision making and problem solving tasks. Or is this oversimplifying our probably most complex organ, the brain? We don’t know, but stay tuned, we will keep our eyes open for more research on attention and what role it plays for the performance on intellectual tasks.

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