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Brain hacking: Electrifying your creative side

If you could turn down part of the brain, might you be able to see the world in fresh ways?


Could a tiny current of electricity help turn on your creative juices?  If you could turn down part of the brain, might you be able to see the world in fresh ways?

In experiments at the University of Pennsylvania, scientists ran small amounts of electric current through the brains of volunteers that changed the way the participants exercised their imaginations.

With a noninvasive method called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS), the scientists used two milliamps of current — about the equivalent of a 9 volt battery — to suppress a part of the brain that filters out irrelevant thoughts and memories.

Researchers found that with TDCS muting the brain's left prefrontal cortex, a volunteer was measurably more creative and more likely to find novel ways to complete unusual tasks.

Sharon Thompson-Schill is the director of Penn's Department of Cognitive Neuroscience.

At the World Cafe on Tuesday April 2 (tonight), she will talk about her lab's research in manipulating brain functions with TDCS in a program called "Thinking Differently: The Upside and Downside of Cognitive Control."

In studies at other institutions, TDCS has shown promise in treating chronic pain, migraine and depression. Scientists working for the Department of Defense have also found that it helps speed learning.

"It's an interesting method to change cognition non-pharmacologically," said Thompson-Schill adding that her interest in TDCS is purely scientific. "I'm not interested in building a device people could wear on their heads to make them more creative."

The TDCS device itself is small enough to fit inside a briefcase, she said. And with the exception of a tingling sensation where electrodes are connected to the scalp, there are few side effects.

She's tried it herself.

"I have a personal rule," she said. "I won't do something to other people that I haven't done myself."

Most research on TDCS has focused on zapping the brain so that neurons fire more readily. Thompson-Schill's team wanted to know the opposite — what might happen if they made it harder for the neurons to fire.

The prefrontal cortex, believed to control decision making and social behavior, is one of the last parts of the human brain to develop.

But in nonhuman primates it develops in lockstep with the rest of the brain.

"Why would this developmental shift have happened in humans?" she asked. Could the delay in development be an functional adaptation? her team wondered.

Could the delay have provided an advantage, say in language, to those who had a longer period of prefrontal immaturity? Could people with lower levels of control be better at some things?

Volunteers were divided into three groups. One group received the TDCS to mute the left prefrontal cortex. The second had TDCS targeted at a different area. The third group was outfitted with the same device, but only got enough juice to cause their scalp to tingle.

Each person was shown pictures of everyday objects and asked to come up with a new uses for them.

The group which received the TDCS muting the left prefrontal cortex was better in coming up with unusual uses than the others — and did it faster.

The results were published last month in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience.

Normally we're quick to categorize things, Thompson-Schill said. That has its advantages.

"You sit in a chair without thinking about the fabric, the material its made of, the shape of the chair's back," she said. "In that simple act, you're throwing away huge amounts of information that are irrelevant if you just need a place to sit."

With that filtering, much of the world goes by unnoticed.Thompson-Schill, who has three children, said kids are less likely to get fixated on the normal function of an object which is probably why they're so good at playing pretend.

"With TDCS, in terms of their frontal lobe function, we made our adults a little more childlike," she said.

Sharon Thompson-Schill presents "Thinking Differently: The Upside and Downside of Cognitive Control" tonight at 6 p.m. at Upstairs at the World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. The talk will be followed by an audience Q&A session. 

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or