For as much as would-be academics like to tout their "love of learning," the actual act of learning a new skill kind of sucks. The journey has its moments, obviously, but it's no fun watching someone shred a guitar while you're still only good for a few chords after a month of practice. But according to scientists at HRL Laboratories, there may be a "hack," of sorts: Using low-current electrical brain stimulation, they're able to hasten and improve the learning process. It is, to date, the closest anyone's come to recreating the "knowledge uploads" depicted in The Matrix.
The study involved novices learning to pilot an airplane in a realistic simulator similar to the ones used by real pilots. While the control group received instruction and practiced in the simulator like normal, the experimental group got an enhancement: After the researchers measured the brain patterns of six experienced commercial and military pilots, the experimental group had those patterns electrically transmitted into their brains via a special cap. With the extra brain stimulation, the experimental group performed 33% better than the control group.
Obviously, that's not the same as plugging a cord into your head and having a full working knowledge of kung fu a few minutes later — if that's possible at all, it's still many years out on the horizon. But the researchers still believe that what they've developed has current, real-world applicability.
"As we discover more about optimizing, personalizing, and adapting brain stimulation protocols, we'll likely see these technologies become routine in training and classroom environments," says Dr. Matthew Phillips of HRL's Information & System Sciences Laboratory. "It's possible that brain stimulation could be implemented for classes like drivers' training, SAT prep, and language learning."
You still have to put in the work — the stimulation just helps your brain form the same pathways created through years of practice — but this early proof of concept is super exciting.
The Big Question
Is it safe to mess with people's brains like this?