Email Print Share

"Thinking Cap" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
Audio Play Audio
The Discovery Files podcast is available through iTunes or you can add the RSS feed to your podcast receiver. You can also access the series via AudioNow® by calling 641-552-8180 on any telephone.

Psychologists at Vanderbilt University have shown that it is possible to selectively manipulate our ability to learn through the application of a mild electrical current to the brain.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Put on your thinking cap.

I'm Bob Karson with "The Discovery Files"--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

The medial-frontal cortex (call it the MFC) is the part of the brain that gives you that "oops" (Sound effect: buzzer: wrong!) response when you make a mistake. There's a spike of negative voltage that originates in the MFC just milliseconds after you make an error. Psychologists at Vanderbilt University wanted to see if it's possible to manipulate our ability to learn by applying a mild electrical current to the brain.

The subjects of the study wore a headband with one electrode atop the head and one on the cheek, and received a gentle electrical stimulus for 20 minutes--so gentle all they felt was a little tingling.

In each of three sessions, the volunteers were randomly given current that traveled from the top of the head to the cheek--cheek to top of the head--or sham that caused tingling but no effect on the brain. They were asked to perform trial and error learning tasks, with time and other pressures to increase the chance of mistakes.

Result: The researchers were able to reduce or increase the amount of mistakes and cause participants to learn more slowly or quickly--just by changing the direction of the current.

The findings may have applications in treating ADHD or schizophrenia--and I'm thinking someday helping me learn to set my digital watch.

(Sound effect: theme music)

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded in part by the government's National Science Foundation. Learn more at

General Restrictions:
Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation. Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.

Also Available:
Download the high-resolution JPG version of the image. (66.6 KB)

Use your mouse to right-click (Mac users may need to Ctrl-click) the link above and choose the option that will save the file or target to your computer.

MP3 icon
NSF podcasts are in mp3 format for easy download to desktop and laptops, as well as mobile devices capable of playing them.