Does Zapping Your Brain Actually Help You Learn Faster?

Ever since I stumbled across the nootropics community a few years ago, I've been pretty intrigued by the idea of cognitive enhancement. I mean, who doesn't want to make themselves smarter?

Right off the bat, I want to lay it out there that there are very few studies that convincingly show we can increase our memory and other performance by taking some drug. I've written pretty extensively about so called "smart drugs" before - ADHD medication such as adderall, or research chemicals like piracetam. Evidence that they do anything in the healthy human brain is scant-to-nonexistent.

So far, the only chemical that seems to have some potential is modafinil, a drug without unknown pharmacology that treats narcolepsy. Even then, the drug seems to mainly benefit people who aren't functioning at their peak brain power.

In other words, boosting brain power is really darn hard. 

But chemicals are only part of the story. They mainly regulate brain activity through chemical signaling at the synapses. Another way neurons talk to each other is through electrical activity. Recently, plenty of studies have popped up that looks at what happens to the brain when you zap it with electricity, usually via a cap-full of electrodes plastered to your scalp. 

According to who you read, it may heighten creativity, enhance spatial learning, boost math skills and make it easier to learn a new language.

Pretty neat, though if you ask the doubters, the only thing that the tech - transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS - is good at is giving you a nasty electrical burn. 

It gets even wilder. Since "learning" is really just different patterns of brain activity, some people think that if they record the brain activity of expert pilots performing a certain action - for example, a 360 spin using a computer simulator - the scientists can then use electrodes to induce the same pattern of activity in a new person, essentially "downloading" the skill into their brains.

Before you scream "Matrix!", I have to hand you the blue pill: no, it doesn't work. At least not right now, especially not for complicated tasks. However, there are preliminary, but published, results that show one person's brain waves can contain enough information so that when zapped into a receiver's head (using magnetic stimulation, not electric), it causes the receiver to move his hand in the way encoded by the first person's brain waves.

I'm somewhat of a pessimist at heart, and it's incredibly hard for me to hop on any hype train. But the fields of neuroengineering and brain-machine interfaces have been developing so fast over the last few years it's hard not to feel cautiously optimistic about their potential.

If you'd like to learn a bit more about tDCS, or the electrical nootropic (e-noot? Yeah...not likely to catch on there ;p), head over to Singularity Hub.