I don't know about you, but when I think of stimulating the brain with electricity, it's ridiculously hard for me not to call to mind an image of the great Gene Wilder reveling maniacally in his pronouncement of "It's alive!" in Young Frankenstein.
But my logical mind knows that scientists already have been using electricity for real medicine--e.g., pain management, tissue repair, neuromuscular dysfunction--for years. And according to a new study led by Rob Reinhart, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, one new application of electrostimulation is to give serious juice to your working memory.
For the study, Reinhart and his team asked people in their 20s to perform a series of memory tasks. To do this, the participants had to look at a picture, pause briefly and then say whether a second picture was different from the first one. The researchers also had a second group of people in their 60s and 70s go through the same procedure.
As you might expect, the younger set of participants were able to perform their memory task better than those in the older group. But then Reinhart stimulated the brains of the older participants through noninvasive scalp electrodes. And with that tweak, the gap between performance in the two groups disappeared. And, it lasted beyond the 50-minute window the team allowed after the stimulation.
Why a jolt does you good
A summary from Boston University explains what gives this impressive result. Your brain works with both low-frequency theta and fast-frequency gamma rhythms. While the gamma rhythms help process all the different elements of a memory (e.g., color, shape), the theta rhythms work as conductors of an orchestra, coordinating the gamma rhythms. This is known as coupling. At the same time, theta rhythms from different areas of the brain will synchronize.
Now, as we age, the conductors metaphorically start to drop more and more pages from the score. They don't couple or synchronize as well, and as a result, memories don't play from the concert hall the way they used to.
But electrostimulation, when properly done, might get coupling and synchronizing back on track. It can ensure that the pathways to your memories stay stronger.
Reinhart's team asserts that the technique could be incredibly helpful when it comes to treating age-related decline without medicines. There's a potential for it to offer relief to those with Alzheimer's, for example.
But Reinhart didn't stop there. He went back and stimulated the brains of the people in the young group, too. And guess what. Even they showed improvement. That suggests that entrepreneurs and leaders might find electrostimulation to be a useful tool when they've got a lot they need or want to remember, no matter their age.
The perfect storm for development
Lest you think that entrepreneurs aren't looking for any and every tool to give them an edge and stay forever young, consider the notorious culture of Silicon Valley, as Sara Solovitch notes in The Washington Post--people regularly pop pills they think will offer mental and physical benefit. And they're willing to try other options, too.
"Dedicated brain hackers, as they call themselves, are willing to exploit their own biology to try to sharpen their mind," Solovitch writes. "Their methods include meditation, cold-water plunges, periodic fasting and high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets."
Not all of what leaders try to help their brains actually works, of course. And there's a lot more work to do before anyone can make electrostimulation for memory a precise science. But the broader picture is that electrostimulation doesn't have as much skepticism surrounding it as it once did, and that the current work environment is ripe for the production of well-regulated procedures that can benefit leaders and their teams. As my colleague Jessica Stillman points out, there's already even evidence that electrostimulation might help creativity on top of memory, with devices like the Halo Sport drawing real attention from authoritative organizations such as the Navy Seals.
So don't be shocked if you see or hear about a person getting carefully zapped on top of their regular Sudoku and meditation. Someday soon, that might be as normalized and easy to order as your morning latte.