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Could A "Thinking Cap" Help Us Learn?

4 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation. A man fits a red fabric cap with white holes in it on the head of a young woman.

(male) Let's put the cap on.

(male narrator) We heard it in elementary school, "Time to put your thinking caps on." Soon, maybe we really will.

(male) Because we're being equipped with an ever-increasingly large arsenal of tools we can use to understand the brain.

(Describer) Electrodes are attached to her face.

And we can get electrodes into the brain and eavesdrop on individual neurons.

(narrator) Initial support from the National Science Foundation allowed psychologist Geoff Woodman and his team at Vanderbilt University to study memory and perception. Then they found that electrical stimulation in certain parts of the brain can boost learning and improve decision-making. We've shown that if we stimulate over what scientists call the medial frontal cortex, which is essentially here,

(Describer) The center of the top.

what we can do is to make subjects learn faster.

(narrator) Rob Reinhart showed us how their experiment works. After attaching electrodes to her head and face, they stimulate Laura's brain with electricity for 20 minutes. The levels are not dangerous, about the same strength as a nine-volt battery.

(female) It feels maybe like a mild itching or tingling sensation. It's not painful at all. You get used to it really fast.

(Describer) Cables run from the cap to a board.

(narrator) Researchers monitor her brain waves as she takes a test on a computer. It's similar to a video game, with lots of trial and error choices designed so she learns from her mistakes.

(male) We can track your brain activities on the fly while you're performing this task: while you're learning, making errors, slowing down after errors, doing all those things that we're interested in measuring.

(narrator) In more than five dozen people tested, the results were clear: 3/4 of them showed strong, positive effects from the precisely targeted electrical stimulation. So, could a daily charge help us ace a test, pilot an airplane, transplant a heart? We did find that the effects lasted for about five hours. That gets you through a significant portion of the day or maybe an important transatlantic flight.

(narrator) Brain stimulation may also help people with psychiatric disorders. Some of our more recent work has been in collaboration with people who study schizophrenia. We've seen that with the same sort of brain stimulation that causes people without this disorder to learn more quickly, that we can provide some sort of treatment for their underlying disorders.

(narrator) Woodman says their thinking cap won't be ready for widespread use for some time. They want to rule out any long-term side effects. But for now, it's certainly a technology worth concentrating on.

(Describer) A globe turns beside the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Teachers often say to students, “Put your thinking caps on,” and one day, students might just do that for real. Vanderbilt University psychologist Geoffrey Woodman says that’s because scientists are being equipped with more and more tools they can use to better understand the brain, and now, they can even eavesdrop on individual neurons. Initial support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) allowed Woodman and his team at the Vanderbilt University Visual Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory to study memory and perception. Then, the researchers tested their theory that electrical stimulation of the medial frontal cortex can boost learning and improve decision-making. Part of the National Science Foundation Series “Science Nation.”

Media Details

Runtime: 4 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
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Episode 4
4 minutes
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Episode 5
4 minutes
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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Episode 10
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