A ‘thinking cap’ that works
We’ve all heard the term ‘thinking cap’. It’s that make-believe hat you put on when you need to concentrate your mind on an intellectually challenging problem. In case you’re wondering where the term actually comes from, a quick google of its origins reveals the following:
A ‘thinking cap’ was previously known by the appealing name a ‘considering cap’. That term has gone entirely out of use now but was known since at least the early 17th century, as in this example from Robert Armin in Foole upon foole, 1605: “The Cobler puts off his considering cap, why sir, sayes he, I sent them home but now.”
More than 400 years later, imagine what Armin would think about news that scientists may have, in fact, devised such a cap, albeit one wired to pass a weak electrical current to the right or left side of the brain, the result being to either improve the wearer’s creativity and suppress their linear thinking or vice versa?
I recently heard about the cap’s invention on the ABC Radio National Breakfast program. Apparently the scientists who created it, Professor Allan Snyder and Richard Chi, based at Sydney University’s Centre of the Mind (you can peruse their paper here) have for some time been amassing evidence of its effectiveness, including some compelling results from their latest study.
Ever heard of the ‘nine dot problem’? It’s a puzzle that involves connecting a pattern of nine dots – arranged in a 3×3 grid – using four straight lines drawn without lifting the pen from the paper or retracing any lines. Can’t do it? Don’t worry. Neither can most people. Indeed in a lab setting, the expected solution rate for the problem is zero.
But when the researchers recently subjected a group of volunteers to 10 minutes of brain stimulation courtesy of a ‘cap’, during which time a 2 milliamp current passed across each volunteer’s head with the positive electrode applied to the right temple and the negative electrode to the left, the solution rate for the puzzle jumped to 40% (check out the solution here).
According to Snyder and Chi, folk find the puzzle so perplexing because the dominant left temporal lobe uses prior knowledge of shapes to interpret the pattern of dots as a square with imposed rigid boundaries. So even though the solution requires drawing lines outside this shape, most of us persist in thinking ‘inside the box’ and the penny never drops.
A shot of electrical current to the brain, however, boosts activity on the more creative right side of the brain while reducing it in the creativity-suppressing left side, liberating many of us from our existing cognitive biases and allowing us to think more laterally in order to … bingo! … solve the problem.
None of which means the thinking cap will make us smarter. “Its advantage isn’t in acquiring more knowledge quickly. Its advantage is in seeing the world anew,” says Snyder.
“We look at the world through what we know. We have lots of preconceptions that allow us to manoeuvre quickly in the world, but that has a downside. That downside is that we tend to see the world as it was rather than as it is.”