A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for Australasian Science on what may be one of the most remarkable pieces of research I have ever covered. Or it could be nonsense. It’s hard to know. At this stage I think remarkable is more likely, but I should warn you that I do have a few doubts. The article won’t be published for another month, but the story has got a bit of play on the web (although not nearly as much as it deserves, if true) so I figured I’d write about it now.
To start off, it concerns a puzzle. The puzzle isn’t new – it seems to have been invented about a century ago and became big at corporate training days from the 60s onwards, so some of you may have seen it.
The challenge is to link these nine dots with just four straight lines, without taking the pen of the paper (finger off screen, etc). Supposedly very, very few people can do this without hints. Figures I’ve seen are that only 5% of Ivy League students can do it in a relaxed environment, and under exam conditions effectively no one can.
In steps Prof Allan Snyder. Snyder challenged two groups of people to solve the problem. Both groups were made up largely of university students and academics from the University of Sydney where he works, with people randomly allocated to each group. At first none could. Then Snyder used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on the brains of one of the groups. The stimulation was done in such a way as to suppress the left anterior temporal lobe and stimulate the right anterior temporal lobe. While doing this several of the subjects suddenly saw the solution to the problem, while another got the solution almost immediately after the stimulation ceased.
Snyder sees this as evidence for something he has long proposed – it is possible to unleash enormous human creativity through stimulating and suppressing appropriate parts of the human brain via TMS.
Can you see why I am excited about this? Solving dinky little dot problems is one thing, but if Snyder is right, there is potential for all of us to become much, much smarter. Snyder chose the left suppression/right stimulation combination based on evidence that people who have suffered some sort of damage to the left anterior temporal lobe with compensatory development on the right have savant-like powers. Of course these people almost always pay a huge price for this. I doubt anyone who has seen Rainman would be thinking “Wow I want to be like Dustin Hoffman’s character”.
But imagine if one could temporarily release those sorts of capacities. Sure we’d lose other things, but only temporarily as well. Being able to turn on and off different parts of the brain at will…just wow.
Moreover, TMS is now used for a range of conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease and depression. Success is mixed (I did an article recently on someone who thinks they are on the trail of working out why it works at some times and not others) but unlike electro-convulsive shock treatment, with which it is sometimes confused, TMS doesn’t seem to have much in the way of negative side effects or associated pain.
Nevertheless, I do have some concerns here. The first is that, as noted Snyder has been pushing this idea for some time, and this paper seems to be the first significant looking back-up. The work was published in Neuroscience Letters, so it’s not crank research, but the sample size was not large – about a dozen people in each group, the majority of whom could not solve the problem even with TMS. To his credit Snyder gave the control group an experience that would have made them think they were undergoing TMS, so it’s probably not a placebo effect here.
On the other hand, when I posted this problem on facebook more than the friends who responded claimed to be able to solve it. Now some admitted they may have seen it before, and perhaps others had as well, with the solution lodging in their brain without them remembering why. One friend also gave a hint, which may have helped some others, and a comment from at least one person suggested he may have misread the instructions and come up with a banned solution. Still, if even half the friends who claimed they spotted the solution of their own accord actually did we’re talking a success rate far, far above the one claimed. Sure my friends tend to be smart, but I do wonder if Snyder’s claims about the low success rate without TMS are correct, which then brings the rest of the findings into question.
Still, if there is even a chance this works it seems well worth pursuing. Snyder told me he didn’t think TMS would help with certain sorts of problems. However, he thought it had huge potential in areas where one part of the brain is actually quite skilled, but for evolutionary reasons has tended to be shut down by others. Just think about all the problems we are unable to solve because we are too conditioned to certain ways of thinking.
I joked to Snyder about students taking TMS machines into exams with them, but what I really want is people to be undergo TMS to shut down the more reptilian centres of the brain and stimulate the areas responsible for logic before voting. (OK that’s a joke too, before we see this turning up as alleged Greens policy in the Herald-Sun). Consider the quote attributed to Einstein, that “We cannot solve the problems of today with the thinking that created them”. What better way out than to allow us a whole new way of thinking?
Ohh and the solution…You can find it on Wikipedia etc if you really want, but give it a go first. I’ll post here in a couple of days.