‘Thinking cap’ boosts insight through brain stimulation

University of Sydney scientists say they’re on the verge of creating an ‘electronic thinking cap’ – a way of stimulating the brain to provide flashes of insight.

Richard Chi and Allan Snyder found that participants who received electrical stimulation of their anterior temporal lobes were three times as likely to reach the fresh insight necessary to solve a difficult, unfamiliar problem than those in a control group.

According to the authors, the problem with ‘flashes of inspiration’ is that human beings have a tendency to rigidly apply strategies and insights that have been successful in the past. And there’s normally a tradeoff between being fast at familiar tasks, and being receptive to novelty.

But Chi and Snyder say that it’s possible to modulate this tradeoff and improve insight by applying transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the brain. This, they say, is a safe, non-invasive technique that temporarily increases or decreases excitability of populations of neurons.

They therefore used tDCS to manipulate the competition between the left and right hemisphere by inhibiting and/or disinhibiting certain networks, and found a three-fold improvement in problem-solving.

This fits neatly with evidence that the right anterior temporal lobe is associated with insight or novel meaning, and that inhibition of the left anterior temporal lobe can induce a way of thinking that’s less top-down and less influenced by preconceptions.

Chi and Snyder want to carry out further studies involving brain stimulation in combination with neuroimaging. But, they say, they “can imagine a future when non-invasive brain stimulation is briefly employed for solving problems that have evaded traditional cognitive approaches”.