Zapping the brain with electricity may improve creativity and help people ‘think outside the box’, scientists including one of Indian origin have found. Researchers temporarily suppressed a key part of the brain involved in most of our thinking and reasoning. The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, show that participants who received the intervention showed an enhanced ability to ‘think outside the box’. “We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the brain’s left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), plays a key role in automating this process,” said Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) in the UK. “It works fine most of the time, but fails spectacularly when we encounter new problems which require a new style of thinking – our past experience can indeed block our creativity. To break this mental fixation, we need to loosen up our learned rules,” said Luft. The researchers, including Joydeep Bhattacharya from Goldsmiths University of London, used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involved passing a weak constant electrical current through saline- soaked electrodes positioned over the scalp to modulate the excitability of the DLPFC.
Depending on the direction of the current flow, DLPFC was temporarily suppressed or activated. The very low currents applied ensured that it would not cause any harm or unpleasant sensation. Sixty participants were tested on their creative problem solving ability before and after receiving one of the following interventions: DLPFC being suppressed, DLPFC being activated, and DLPFC being unstimulated. The participants solved “matchstick problems”, some of which are hard, because to solve these problems, participants need to relax the learnt rules of arithmetic and algebra. The participants whose DLPFC was temporarily suppressed by the electrical stimulation were more likely to solve hard problems than other participants whose DLPFC was activated or not stimulated. This demonstrates that suppressing DLPFC briefly can help breaking mental assumptions learned from experience and thinking outside the box.
However, researchers also observed that these participants got worse at solving problems with a higher working memory demand (where many items are needed to be held in mind at once). These problems require the participants to try a number of different moves until finding the solution, which means they have to keep track of their mental operations. “These results are important because they show the potential of improving mental functions relevant for creativity by non-invasive brain stimulation methods,” said Luft.