Imagine a creativity cap. A device that would free you, if only momentarily, from your mindsets, from your prejudices, from the mental blocks to creativity.
These words are emblazoned on the website Creativitycap.com, and they represent the vision of neuroscientist Allan Snyder. Snyder believes we all possess untapped powers of cognition, normally seen only in rare individuals called savants, and accessing them might take just a few jolts of electricity to the brain.
It sounds like a Michael Crichton plot, but Snyder, of the University of Sydney, Australia, says he wouldnâ€™t be surprised to see a prototype of the creativity cap within a couple of years. His research suggests that brain stimulation improves peopleâ€™s ability to solve difficult problems. But Snyderâ€™s interpretation of his findings remains controversial, and the science of using brain stimulation to boost thinking is still in its early stages.
â€œI think itâ€™s a bit of a minefield,â€ said psychologist Robyn Young of Flinders University in Australia, who has tried to replicate Snyderâ€™s early experiments. â€œIâ€™m not really sure whether the technology is developed that can turn it into a more accurate science.â€
Snyder has long been fascinated by savants â€” people with a developmental brain disorder (often autism) or brain injury who display prowess in a particular area, such as mathematics, art or music, which far exceeds the norm. Kim Peek, who provided the inspiration for Dustin Hoffmanâ€™s character in the movie â€œRain Man,â€ was a savant who could memorize entire books after a single reading, or instantly calculate what day of the week any calendar date fell on. But he had a severe mental disability that prevented him from performing simple actions such as buttoning his shirt.
Wisconsin psychiatrist and savant expert Darold Treffert describes a skill like Kimâ€™s as an â€œisland of genius that stands in stark contrast to the overall handicap.â€
Other savants acquire their abilities after a severe brain injury or illness. Alonzo Clemons suffered a head injury as a toddler that left him mentally disabled, but endowed him with the ability to accurately sculpt beautiful clay animals after only briefly glimpsing them. And patients with frontotemporal dementia have been known to suddenly display artistic and musical abilities, like the successful businessman who developed dementia and started doing award-winning painting.
But not all savant abilities come with a trade-off, says Treffert. Sometimes itâ€™s possible for otherwise normal people to have savant skills.
Snyder hypothesizes that all people possess savant-like abilities in a dormant form, but that savants have â€œprivileged accessâ€ to less-processed, lower-level information. In a normal brain, top-down controls suppress the barrage of raw data our brains take in, enabling us to focus on the big picture.
â€œWe all have that information,â€ Snyder said, â€œbut our brains are deliberately wired not to see it.â€
Using brain stimulation, he thinks itâ€™s possible to temporarily remove that mental suppression and unlock the savant inside each of us. In their latest study, published in April in Neuroscience Letters, Snyder and graduate student Richard Chi tested peopleâ€™s performance on a geometric puzzle called the nine dots problem (right).
The goal is to connect all nine dots using just four straight lines, without lifting your pen up or retracing a line. Itâ€™s a classic problem that researchers have been giving people for a century, but in the majority of experiments, no participants are able to solve it, even with plenty of time and many attempts. (If you have tried and failed, hereâ€™s the solution.)
Snyder and Chi had their subjects attempt to solve the problem while wearing an electrode cap. After a few minutes without brain stimulation, half of the subjects received stimulation while the other half received no stimulation. Hereâ€™s the interesting part: Whereas none of the subjects solved the problem before brain stimulation, more than 40 percent of subjects in the stimulation group solved the problem after being zapped. Talk about being struck by inspiration. …
I’d like to zap my way to absolute pitch. I’m close to being able to sing a “C” note out of the blue after a lot of practice, but the other notes I have to find in reference to the “C”. I should just hear the note and instantly recognize that it is an F# or whatever. What mental super power would you like to have?