Scientifically Blonde | Zapping your brain to a 4.0
For now, avoid the temptation to shock your brain into improving at math
January 27, 2011, 5:21 am · Updated January 27, 2011, 12:00 am·
The journey to medical school as a Penn undergraduate is not for the weak of heart. The competitive atmosphere can wrack your nerves and run you down, leaving you perpetually stressed and fearing B-minuses like the plague.
Early on in the fight to earn medical school admissions, you learn that in order to secure yourself a spot you’ve got to have an edge over the rest of the applicant pool. So when I heard about a study from the University of Oxford that found that electroshock brain therapy makes you significantly better at math, my first thought was, “Where do I sign up?!”
Essentially, the Oxford study took 15 college student volunteers between 20 and 22 years old with average math abilities. The volunteers were then asked to learn a new set of “artificial numerical symbols” (symbols representing numerical quantities) and then solve math problems using this new set of numbers. Sounds freakily hard already, right?
Half of the student volunteers underwent painless electrical brain stimulation and half got a sham procedure. Remarkably, the students who got the real electroshock therapy showed significantly improved mathematical abilities, an improvement that lasted for over half a year.
Some people might think that zapping the parietal lobe with electrical currents is too extreme of a measure to take simply to improve your ability to do math. “I just think it’s weird,” College sophomore Elise Hoi said. “I don’t think I would ever do something like that because it seems scary.” Or take David Hao, another College sophomore, who said that electroshock brain therapy is “way too drastic just to be better at math.”
I’m guessing these critics (who both happen to be biochemistry majors) don’t feel the same arduous struggle with calculus and physics that I do.
To a student who would subject herself to a significant amount of physical pain to become better at math, this pain-free brain zapping procedure seems awesome. But I’m just the kind of person the study worries about.
The study’s lead author Roi Cohen Kadosh said to the news service HealthDay that these results pose an ethical dilemma and expressed fear that this kind of technology would be “misused” by people with normal math intelligence to gain an advantage.
I guess this does bring up some pretty serious issues about academic honesty. This kind of cognitive enhancement is starting to remind me a little too much of the ongoing controversy of the misuse of study drugs (read: Adderall) on university campuses. But if this procedure turns out to be free of side effects, I think we should be able to take full advantage of the medical advancements we have to better our brains.
Well, okay. There’s one thing that’s stopping me from throwing my unconditional support behind electroshock therapy for cognitive enhancements, and this is the issue of equal access. If electroshock therapy does become more common (and a lot more work will need to be done before this is even a possibility), it’s probably going to cost a substantial amount of dough, which the majority of Americans — arguably those who would benefit most from an academic edge — would be unable to afford.
But putting these issues of access aside, when it comes down to it, the idea that a painless, non-invasive procedure can make you better at math is pretty cool. The implications for science nerds, finance-mongers and math-haters alike are astounding.
Currently, the study’s authors want to use their findings to help people with math disabilities or phobias, but I see the applications of this technology far extending this limited use. If and when we ensure that this therapy is effective and safe, we’ve got to take advantage of this mental math boost.
Sally Engelhart is a College junior from Toronto. Her e-mail address is engelhart@theDP.com. Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.