Thinking about psychologists attaching electrodes to the head might conjure up images from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (worst-case scenario) or Carrie Mathison’s shock treatment therapy on Homeland (best case). Either way, we tend to associate electroshocking the brain with the dulling of personality and individuality. In fact, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that sending very low doses of current into the brain’s prefrontal cortex can actually increase our creative faculties.
"We have all this info impinging on us from the outside world and bubbling up internally," says Dr. Sharon Thompson-Schill, who directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. "The prefrontal cortex helps us focus on a given goal or plan. If I know I’m having friends over for dinner, I might plan to stop by wine store. My prefrontal cortex makes sure I don’t get distracted if I bump into a friend on my way there."
But filtering isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes, we want our brains to wander. When it comes to creative pursuits, we want to think in expansive, innovative ways. Being able to focus on the small, specific tasks might help an artist paint hyperspecific details into a painting or write a line of code. But what about coming up with big ideas and counterintuitive insights?
When given a picture of a tennis ball and asked what the object is for, most people probably say "playing tennis." But hooked up to the researchers’ electrode apparatus, subjects come up with all kinds of crazy ideas.
"You might propose cutting the tennis ball in half and wearing it as protective ear gear," says Thompson-Schill. "To come up with that solution, you’d need to think about the fact that a tennis ball is hollow, that it’s the right size to fit over your ears, and that you can screw a metal headband into it." In other words, the less your brain is set to filter mode—tennis ball equals tennis—the more creatively you’ll think about the object.
To conduct the experiment, Thompson-Schill’s team ran current (less than what comes from a 9V battery) continuously through subjects’ brains for 20 minutes. During this time, they gave participants everyday objects to consider: from chairs, to flowerpots, to rubber gloves. After about a minute, subjects started telling the scientists that wooden chairs could be used for kindling and ironing boards could be used for art displays.
"We believe that the effect lasted the entire time the current was on and persisted a number of minutes after the connection ended," says Thompson-Schill. "We don’t think it lasted more than an hour." Which means that if you wanted to keep thinking out of the box, you’d have to wear the electrodes all the time.
Of course, the long-term effects of buzzing the brain in this manner are not totally understood. It’s a bit disconcerting that a community of people on Reddit have begun making DIY prefrontal cortex zapping machines and hooking themselves up. "It wouldn’t be the first thing I would try," says Thompson-Schill. "There could be a long-term change in the brain. It’s possible that you could lose your ability to focus."
At the same time, she admits that off-label usage of stimulant medication is much more dangerous than what her team is doing. Moreover, it’s pretty easy to change the way that neurons fire; it happens every time a person learns something new.
"There are pluses and minuses to any attentional state," she says. "My advice to people in creative fields is to be attuned to your state of mind. If you’re more focused, work on those things that require focus. And vice versa."
It’s practical advice, sure, but it probably won’t help you make a water slide/back massager/robot out of your desk chair.