What if you could plug into your brain, and upload a program to learn Kung Fu? Sound familiar? This happened in The Matrix (1999) to Neo – his brain was accessed via a plug like device, and a computer fed him a program. Within minutes, he woke up and announced “I know Kung Fu.” He then practiced his skills before mastering the art, but he did indeed know how to fight.
In reality, scientists are capable of “talking to” or stimulating the brain in such a way as to teach it something specific that it did not know before. This technology is in infancy, but the fictional world portrayed in The Matrix has now officially become a little closer to our reality. There are so many meta statements in that statement, my head hurts.
Scientists at HRL Laboratories have released a video about their achievements in Enhanced Training Through Neurostimulation. This is a stimulation system with the goal of manipulating the brain in order to make it capable of performing a skill it was not capable of before. In their recent tests, the specific task they were looking at is piloting an airplane. This skill requires a synergy of both cognitive and motor performance.
When you learn something, your brain physically changes. Connections are made and strengthened in a process called neuroplasticity. It turns out, specific functions of the brain like speech and memory are located in very specific parts of the brain. This specificity means that scientists are able to target the necessary area to make a lasting impact. The technology utilized (electrical impulses directed at specific places on someone’s head), is not a new concept. Ancient Egyptians, 4000 years ago, would use electric fish to stimulate and reduce pain in certain areas of their head. Even Ben Franklin applied electric stimulation to his head. Rigorous research didn’t really begin until the early 2000s, regarding a specific application like teaching the brain something new through electrical stimulation.
The experiment takes novice pilots (people who have had a brief experience with flying) and tries to bring their brain state up to an expert level. This requires physical contact with the scalp using a head cap with lots of sensors attached to it, and conductive gel. It combines three modes of stimulation. One is called functional neuro infrared spectroscopy – this measures the blood flow changes in the brain. Electroencephalogram – EEG – measures electrical activity of the scalp, indicative of brain activity. And the third modality is the actual stimulation paradigm. A paradigm is a typical example or pattern of something, or a model. So, you could think of the instructions or patterns of brain activity required to be an expert pilot as the paradigm that the test subject is exposed to.
The effects of this stimulation take days or weeks of practice to consolidate. So, it’s not an instant change, it’s the same learning mechanism as normal learning – as far as changes to the brain – they’re just amplifying the process. The study showed that novice pilots showed a 33% increase in skill consistency, compared to those who did not receive the stimulation in a placebo group.
This technology is still in its infancy. It can be utilized not only for skill acquisition, but for helping those with traumatic brain injuries. So, don’t get the idea that this is literally like software that immediately changes your brain in order to become an expert at a new skill you’ve never encountered before, with no practice necessary afterwards. It’s not magic, it’s amplifying the process of learning. It could revolutionary for the future of learning, but practice still make perfect.
One of my questions about this process is; how does the difference in long term memory – declarative vs procedural, impact a new skill like this? Declarative and Procedural Memory are the two types of long-term human memories. With a skill requiring motor functioning, e.g. flying a plane, an expert would likely say that flying their plane is like second nature. The motor skills involved are not consciously accessed before the pilot is just pushing the right buttons, using the gears the right way and adjusting different features. These skills would become second nature to an expert – and thus become what’s called procedural memory.
The more abstract details about flying, like information about where they are going that day, what the weather conditions are, new information, or details about, perhaps features of an airport they remember, would be recalled using declarative memory. Your brain actively has to recall declarative memories. I’m curious how new skills become procedural – in that they become second nature skills that you don’t think about before being able to perform. Since the scientists say that these “training” experiences require practice to consolidate, perhaps that’s when new knowledge can possibly become second nature.