Study Finds Random Electrical Current May Help Folks Learn Math

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Mathemati-phobes rejoice. You may one day swap coffee and cramming for a trusty set of head-mounted electrodes. According to a team of researchers, hailing from the UK and Austria, non-invasive electrical brain stimulation may improve math learning. However, the results, while intriguing, require a few requisite grains of salt: The trial was small, and as yet, there is no proven physiological explanation.

The technique, called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS), sends weak electrical impulses racing between electrodes attached to the forehead. An early study using the technique suggested TRNS works by stimulating the brain’s ability to generate and propagate electrical potential, thus making it easier to forge new neural pathways.

The five day experiment tested shallow cognitive processing—students memorizing their times tables, for example—and deep cognitive processing, or the ability to learn a mathematical principle and apply it to solve a novel problem.

Participants were similarly proficient on initial testing, but the TRNS group exhibited significantly higher learning rates in both categories compared to the control group after the trial. According to the paper, “TRNS facilitated the speed of learning for both calculation and drill regimes.”

The researchers recalled participants six months later. Though only 12 returned, the six who had been given TRNS had retained some benefits of the therapy—again outperforming the control individuals in new and old problems.

SH 122_#1This most recent study is not the first to suggest weak electrical stimulation of the brain may enhance cognition. We recently covered several other studies using a similar technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Instead of random pulses, tDCS sends a steady current to the brain.

One study, conducted by the Mind Research Network last year, improved participant performance in threat assessment during training with a virtual reality simulation designed to help soldiers recognize improvised explosive devices. Participants not only performed better, they also reported feeling more focused and relaxed.

Similarly, the US Air Force employs tDCS to enhance drone pilot training. And other studies in 2005, 2008, and 2013 showed tDCS benefitted working memory, language learning, and visual short-term memory respectively.

The evidence seems to indicate something is going on here—but the trials have been limited and few in number. In this case, the test group was 25 and those returning six months later just 12. It’s not uncommon to find interesting results in small trials only to see them vanish in larger populations. Further, though the researchers have no evidence the method is dangerous, they warn not to try it at home.

According to Naturehowever, Cohen Kadosh, leader of the TRNS math trial, hopes to expand the research to include university students in a classroom setting. He hopes someday it might be a key resource folks with dyscalculia—a kind of math dyslexia thought to affect roughly 7% of the population.

Image Credit: OakleyOriginals/Flickr (featured, banner), jimmiehomeschoolmom/Flickr (body)

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • Andrew Atkin June 15, 2013 on 2:53 pm

    Why hasn’t our species evolved with the capacity to learn quickly, always? It’s just a flick of the genetic switch – right? Obviously there must be an adaptive cost to learning quickly. Maybe quick means poor or incomplete learning on some level.

    One insight is that there are are two layers to intelligence. One is the ability to think – the other is the ability to recognise what you should even be thinking about. The concentrated development of the former will leave you with “the technician”…but not someone with a real “mind”.

    Is all this preoccupation with intellectual enhancement rooted in the desire to make us all “smart but stupid” technicians? I sometimes wonder. Note we only teach and test for technician-type intelligence in our culture. Intellectual servitude is the name of the game. Henry Ford and his chums wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Entelin Andrew Atkin June 16, 2013 on 5:41 am

      Our species has evolved to learn quickly, and substantively. There’s variation of course within the human population as one would expect from the process of evolution. Sure there’s an adaptive cost to larger brains, we humans spend about 25% of our metabolic energy on the brain alone, that’s hugely more than any other land creature. I believe the only other creature that comes close (energy wise) is the dolphin.

      You are making a logical fallacy in assuming that there must be a downside. Learning is used in everything we do, there isn’t “two kinds” of learning or intelligence. If larger studies demonstrate the efficacy of this, it would have all sorts of applications.

      While I have my own qualms with the educational system, nothing you said on the subject has anything to do with this article. Improved learning helps, regardless of what you are trying to learn.

    • EQ9g Andrew Atkin June 19, 2013 on 11:03 am

      There would need to be an environmental pressure to give greater survivability to those who learn faster, longer. It’s the same reason we don’t all have 20/20 eyesight. We don’t all need it to survive.

  • Joshmath June 16, 2013 on 2:34 pm

    Here is a helpful tip from ALLISON TUTORING of Lakewood, California.. Bеfоrе thе firѕt daу оf ѕсhооl arrangе a tоur оf thе ѕсhооl with уоur сhild. With уоur сhild’ѕ ѕсhеdulе in hand, lосatе еaсh сlaѕѕ and walk thе rоutе in thе оrdеr thе сlaѕѕеѕ arе оn thе ѕсhеdulе. Lосatе thе lunсh rооm and if уоur сhild iѕ buуing lunсh at ѕсhооl, сhесk tо ѕее hоw thе ѕуѕtеm wоrkѕ.

  • Robert Schreib June 21, 2013 on 3:02 pm

    I think that, as a species, we DO learn VERY quickly. It’s just that we now live in the age of the Internet, which future historians might label ‘The Age of Information Overload!!!’. Seriously, I don’t think even Superman could keep up with even current events or know all about any project or operations system, simply because these days there’s just TOO MUCH information!

  • mchopra62 February 12, 2014 on 12:39 am

    In physics class, we were told that electrons physically move in the wire with a direct current applied to that wire and My dad says that there is random movement; however, energy is transferred from atom to atom by increasing the energy to the adjacent atom. Which view is correct or are they both the same?