Scientists Use Brain Stimulation to Boost Creativity

Participants receiving brain stimulation were more likely to solve difficult problems creatively. 

 

Consider this. It’s time to do that creative thing you do, be it music, art, writing, whatever. You strap on a cap and it stimulates your brain in such a way, as to ramp up your creative juices. According to researchers at Queen Mary and Goldsmith’s Universities, both of London, such a device could, someday, become a reality.


They caution too that there are already a lot of hucksters out there, who are leveraging public interest and ignorance, in order to make a buck. We’re not there yet. But we are making headway. The results of this study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.  

Really creative types are known to be mavericks. They don’t like to follow rules or society’s conventions. This plays out on the neurological level as well. A part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is the stickler of the human mind. This part of the frontal brain is responsible for most of our thinking and reasoning. It’s the rule maker of the brain, and the reminder of the rules.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Queen Mary University of London.

Dr. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft was the study’s first author. She hails from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. Dr. Luft said, “We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process.”

She added, “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.”

Dr. Luft teamed up with Dr. Michael Banissy and Prof. Joydeep Bhattacharya, whom she previously worked with at Goldsmith’s University. The researchers set out to find if they could suppress the DLPFC, using a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).

This is a constant flow of weak, electrical current delivered through electrodes soaked with a saline solution, positioned at key points on the scalp. The constant electrical flow can suppress or activate the DLPFC, as desired. Though it sounds painful, scientists assure us the participants didn’t feel a thing.

Just six volunteers took part in the study. Each recruit was asked to solve “matchstick problems,” which forced them to think creatively. Participants worked on these math problems before and during stimulation. They were made to grasp arcane arithmetic or algebraic rules in order to understand how to solve the problems.

Imagine stimulating your mind with electricity to boost your creativity. Getty Images.

Each participant received one of three types of tDCS: DLPFC suppression, DLPFC activation, or no intervention at all. Those who had a suppressed DLPFC were more likely to solve the problems creatively and more apt to solve difficult ones, than those in the other groups.

Their edge was quickly lost however, when tasks demanded more working memory. Certain problems forced subjects to keep track of all their previous moves in the course of working the problem. Here, a suppressed DLPFC actually worked against the subject.

According to Dr. Luft,

These results are important because they show the potential of improving mental functions relevant for creativity by non-invasive brain stimulation methods. 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. 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.

But this is a giant step forward, offering an avenue for brain enhancement that isn't invasive and doesn’t cause side effects, as pharmacological options might. This isn’t the only study of its kind. In 2015, researchers at the UNC School of Medicine also induced creativity using tDCS, but they applied it differently.

There, researchers used electrical signals to boost alpha waves inside the brain. This induces the kind of relaxed mental state one experiences while daydreaming. The technique was shown to increase a participant’s creativity by over 7%, on average. The results were published in the journal Cortex.  

To learn more about tDCS for improving cognition, click here:

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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