“Our experiences can blind us.” Australian neuroscientists Richard Chi and Allan Snyder set the tone of their latest publication with this all-too-true statement that inspired their research on inducing novel thinking. The human brain is hypothesis-driven, which can prevent us from seeing better solutions to problems in an unfamiliar context.
Previous studies have shown that artistic talent can spontaneously emerge in people with certain brain injuries or localized dementia. Other research has pointed to the anterior temporal lobes (ATL) as areas involved in the way we think. The right anterior lobe is associated with insight and novel meaning, while the left anterior lobe is associated with patterned thinking and mental templates.
The study involved asking 60 healthy right-handed participants to take an insight problem-solving task after having received transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the ATLs. Specifically, excitability was increased in the right ATL (novel thinking area), and decreased in the left ATL (patterned thinking area). This treatment was called L-R+. Another group (referred to as the “sham” group) were told they were receiving stimulation, but did not actually receive any. The stimulation was administered (to those who received it) for five minutes before the participants were given a new type of insight problem.
The results were striking. Only 20% of participants in the sham group were able to solve the second insight problem, while 60% of the L-R+ group were able to solve it. Furthermore, while 45% of the sham group could solve the third insight problem, which was easier, 85% of the L-R+ group could solve it. A third group was given opposite stimulation (R+L-), yet these results were not statistically different from the sham group.
What This Means
The results of this study indicate that the anterior temporal lobes in the brain may be areas associated with the way we think, specifically novel vs. patterned thinking. It also seems that novel thinking can be induced with physical stimulation of the brain. On the other hand, the results also indicate that brain stimulation cannot make you more mentally set than you already are.
This study represents a significant paving stone on the path to developing a real “thinking cap” in the future that could help cure writer’s block, solve difficult problems, and turn brainstorms into brain hurricanes.