Electrical Shocks to the Brain Can Improve Your Math Skills

Electrical Shocks to the Brain Can Improve Your Math Skills


Frankenstein lore--and other science fiction--dictates that all you really need to bring the dead back to life is a well-harnessed lightning bolt. Unfortunately, there's more to being dead than the absence of electricity in your body, as no one has quite made Frankenstein's monster work as planned yet. But using electricity on still-living people can have some fascinating effects that are still being discovered.


Electro-shock therapy has been used, with ambivalent success, to treat all sorts of mental disorders. It doesn't always work, but when done correctly, it does seem to make something tick in there. Now, scientists from the University of Oxford are using similar techniques to make people temporarily smarter. 

It sounds almost childishly simple, like something a third grader would come up with while penning her first short story. Give someone a good shock to the head, watch them suddenly transform into a super genius. The results may not be that dramatic, but applying electricity to a person's brain has been found to help them improve their math skills. And not just while they're being shocked, either: the duration of the improvement has been shown to last up to six months.

They don't even need to open up your head to zap your math skills. The scientists have been using transcranial direct current stimulation, aka TDCS, which simply passes a low level of electricity into the skull to increase or decrease neuron activity. You only need to be mildly shocked for less than 15 minutes for the effect to take place. The process targets the brain's parietal lobe, the part that takes care of processing numbers. The test subjects in the experiment were asked to learn a new set of symbols representing quantities while receiving TDCS. They demonstrated an increased ability to organize the newly learned numbers with their electrically stimulated brains. What surprised scientists was how long the effect lasted; subjects reported increased math skills for months after the experiment. 

The subject of this particular experiment had no significant difficulty with math to begin with, but scientists hope the same procedure may be used to aid those who struggle with numbers. The next step in testing would be to use TDCS on people with learning disabilities and see if it helps improve their math skills. 

Any area of the brain near enough to the skull could potentially be stimulated by TDCS. The procedure could aid people in subjects other than math. It could even ease chronic pain or lessen the after-effects of a stroke. Once scientists know more about how it works and how best to use it, it could become a common therapeutic practice. 

Most scientists don't exactly get to say they spend their days shocking people's brains in their line of work. These Oxford professionals are lucky in that they get to actually fulfill their childhood dreams of becoming mad scientists--in a roundabout way, of course. They're zapping heads for good and not evil, but I'm sure they got their laughs in about the nature of their experiments nonetheless.