The best brain hack for learning faster is one you already know

The best brain hack for learning faster is one you already know
Image: Illustration by Rozalina Burkova and Sarah Sandman
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For more on new technology that influences how we learn, check out the first episode of Should This Exist? the podcast that debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity.

Brain hacking isn’t exactly new—we used to just call it “practice.”

If you wanted to get good at something, anything, you just did it and kept doing it until you basically rewired your mind to accommodate new information and skills. It required no drugs or devices, just determination and effort, since it’s the exertion and repetition that create structural changes in the brain.

Now, some technologists and neuroscientists are creating devices that will hack your brain more rapidly, or so they claim. For example, Daniel Chao, the founder of Halo Neuroscience, invented a headset that electrically stimulates your brain while you practice a motor skill. There are other such commercial devices out there, some aimed at amping up intellectual learning, like the Brain Stimulator, a set of headbands and electrodes for self-administering transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and the Caputron Activadose TDCS starter kit, which contains cables, electrodes, straps, batteries, sponges, and a current stimulator.

In all, more than a dozen tDCS devices are sold in the US to consumers to improve concentration or amp up learning. But none have been tested by the Food and Drug Administration because these are not technically considered medical devices, and so all anyone has to go on is manufacturer claims and anecdotal evidence.

These devices are premised on a simple principle: The idea is to improve cognition by targeting a section of the brain with mild electrical currents meant to stimulate the organ. But to understand how they work, we must first take a brief detour into neuroscience and the relatively new study of brain plasticity.

Brain zapping

The brain runs on electricity. Its cells build up charges that send chemical signals across synapses, the tiny gaps between neurons. When we learn something, synapses that receive the associated signals fire more readily. Supposedly, tDCS enhances that process. Some researchers argue that tDCS strengthens synaptic connections so we learn faster. Or, as Marom Bikson, a professor of biomedical engineering at the City College of New York told Scientific American last year, “You get more bang for your buck” by combining tDCS with traditional training. And Halo aims to do that for people practicing motor skills—it can’t replace training but it can boost it, according to Chao.

In the case of the Halo, the device targets the motor cortex, and is meant to boost the brain’s ability to learn or perfect skills involving motion. As Chao explains it, the Halo improves “muscle memory” through the brain because muscles don’t really remember; the brain sends them signals and these signals structurally change the brain, ultimately resulting in memories and new cognitive connections.

Like traditional brain hacking—or practice—the high-tech version still requires that you train. You can’t just put a Halo on your head and hope to master piano scales or perfect your tennis serve. You have to actually work at the skill you are trying to acquire and, theoretically, the device will help you remember what you’re learning faster and better by boosting the speed at which synaptic connections are created.

Halos are being used by professional athletes and musicians who say they feel it’s effective. The anecdotal evidence is strong but the science of tDCS is a relatively new product of an only slightly older concept—neuroplasticity—that itself has only become accepted in the wider scientific community in the last couple of decades.

In other words, we’ve only just begun to understand how the brain functions and how it changes structurally as a result of practice, over time, even late into life. As such, it might be slightly premature to try enhancing synaptic connections with electric stimulation. Maybe it’s good for some people to send electrical currents to the brain to amp up their training—but then again, it may not be.

But in Chao’s view, his high-tech headset, Halo, is no different from shoes or glasses or any other item people use to improve their lives. While the headset may not be “natural,” it can enhance natural learning, he argues, just as wearing a pair of glasses improves impaired vision or donning shoes makes it easier to walk and run long distances.

Arguably, tDCS boosts learning by using electricity to speed up or enhance synaptic connections. But that hasn’t actually been proven. What has been shown in studies is that for some people on some tests aimed at various parts of the brain, after tDCS subjects show improvement at tasks or feel more attentive. That said, a 2016 study by neuroscientists at Leiden University in the Netherlands, published in the journal Experimental Brain Research, tested a commercial tDCS headset to see if it improves cognitive performance, as advertised, against a sham stimulation. Researchers found that the device actually worsened focus as opposed to sharpening it when subjects were set to cognitive tasks.

In Elif Batuman’s 2015 New Yorker article about tDCS the neurologist Heidi Schambra, of Columbia University, speculated that “tDCS may not merely trigger the placebo effect, as all treatments do, but actually amplify it.” The following year, in a story about the Halo headphones, Alex Hutchinson wrote in the magazine, “The somewhat circular power of the headphones, then, may be that they enhance the benefits of believing in the headphones.”

In other words, wearing the Halo may just make people who are always looking for an added edge feel like their practices are more effective and that feeling could well be the edge they needed. And the same effect could also apply to you.

In an editorial in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in May 2017 on tDCS and sports performance by researchers from institutions around the world and the US, scientists were circumspect. “While its effects are variable across and within individuals, it is not unreasonable to state that tDCS harbors the potential to enhance executive and physical human performance,” they wrote. However, they noted that “while tDCS can broadly modulate brain activity, and is considered safe within accepted boundaries, it remains to be conclusively determined whether it can improve sports performance at an elite level.”

Athletes who used tDCS in study settings did show improved performance but some of this was attributed to perceptions of improved effectiveness. The researchers don’t rule out the potential of tDCS to improve performance but they warn “such hypotheses need careful testing before broad adoption.”

The danger of tDCS then is that it’s being widely embraced before the long-term effects are understood, and with little consideration for potential cognitive trade-offs. And even researchers who are enthusiastic about the possibilities are concerned that individuals experimenting with brain zapping aren’t being as careful as researchers in a lab testing study subjects. Because the brain does change and is malleable in ways we are only starting to discover, that means the potential dangers of messing with electricity and the mind are many.

The plastic brain

In 1890, William James first suggested that the human brain could change over time in Principles of Psychology. Previously, it was believed that brains were fixed with innate abilities, and that you basically couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks.

In 1948, a Polish neuroscientist named Jerzy Konorski coined the term “neuroplasticity,” a reference to the malleable nature of the brain. About a half century later, we went from thinking abilities are fixed to believing in the infinite possibilities of the exercised mind thanks to research that showed that both humans and animals’ brains adapt to changes, structurally shifting based on experiences and signals.

Although the concept of neuroplasticity has been around for some time, it took a while to provide proof of this malleability and to understand how the brain makes new connections. And it wasn’t until neuroimaging technology existed that it was possible to look at structural change in the brain.

In 2000, Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work showing how nerve cells communicate using electrical and chemical signals. The signals change the structure of the connections between cells, or synapses, and memories are formed by different signals. “This is true in all animals that learn, from molluscs to man,” as the Nobel Committee explains.

Kandel’s work and win prompted recognition of and interest in neuroplasticity, a somewhat vague term that refers to several different things, including the brain’s ability to adapt to changing environmental stimuli, structural transformations, and re-organization. From an overall developmental perspective, there are two major periods of neuroplasticity, the experience-expectant phase and the experience-dependent phase, each of which is associated with a different time in life.

In childhood, brains have “experience-expectant” plasticity. The organ anticipates learning from the environment, and this phase continues until about our mid-20s. At that point, the brain isn’t fully formed, nor are its various sections all connected, which explains why we now understand that children and teenagers simply can’t understand some consequences of their actions. Then, in early adulthood, the brain is mature and we enter the “experience-dependent” plasticity phase. At that point, the brain is kind of resting on its laurels, and it only changes when we learn something, or when there’s an environmental transformation. The organ no longer exists in a state of constant change anticipation—it’s not “growing” as it were—but relies mostly on previously acquired information.

Still, new neural connections are formed in an adult brain as a result of training, or they can be if we keep learning. Many people also stop learning new things about the same time that they enter the experience-dependent plasticity phase. We graduate from school and start working, often in jobs that rely on us effectively using the skills we developed when we were young. We get comfortable and lazy and that reliance on past lessons and skills alone can lead to cognitive decline.

The natural hacker

But we don’t have to become dumb and lazy; our brains can continue to grow. Cognitive function can be maintained or even improved with a lifetime of continual learning. “The fact is that the brain is still plastic even when [people] are 70 or 80 years old. It can still be optimized–but instead, many people unwittingly accelerate its deterioration,” Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Wired.

Gazzaley likens the brain to a muscle that atrophies from lack of use and challenges. If you don’t exercise the mind, it gets out of shape with time. But if you keep learning throughout your life, you can forge new neuronal and synaptic connections and you can keep getting ever-sharper.

Thought itself does the work of changing the shape of the brain. Basically, how it works is that the brain transmits patterns of electrical information to and from sense receptors that act as transducers of energy. These electrical signals make structural changes, as Kandel showed, causing the brain to “sculpt itself.”

Scientist and writer Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, has helped popularize the notion of the brain as a self-healing organ. It can, Doidge argues, through thought and action, be stimulated to minimize the effects of a range of conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, stroke, and traumatic head injury. He writes of seemingly miraculous recoveries by determined patients who “rewired” their brains to see after being blind or block out pain after severe injury.

Doidge notes that it takes an extremely conscientious individual who is also highly open to new experiences to rewire their brains in such miraculous ways, and that’s a rare combination of character traits. Not everyone can train their brains to the same degree. But he does believe that as neuroplasticity becomes better understood, it will change the practice of medicine altogether and patients will become more involved in treatments that require them to “rewire” their own minds.

Ultimately, whether the edge from wearing the headset is more effective than the confidence and enhanced skills that result from lots of practice—the old unplugged kind of hacking—has yet to be established. It may well be that we all already come loaded with the best brain hacking device—the brain itself. We should be wary of alleged shortcuts to intelligence and physical health. The brain remains malleable into old age and helps keep us physically and mentally healthy as long as we stay socially engaged and cognitively and physically active. So far, that’s the only known, safe, reliable hack.

Should This Exist? is a podcast, hosted by Caterina Fake, that debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity. For more in-depth conversation on evaluating the human side of technology, subscribe to Should This Exist? on Apple Podcast.