How An Electric Shock Might Increase Your Math Skills

Terrified young woman in classroom
“Mathematics is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost.” —W.S. Anglin, “Mathematics and History”

In A Nutshell

It’s believed that about 20 percent of the population struggles with math to such a degree that it affects their ability to cope with everyday tasks such as managing money. Some kids are able to do math with a mental abacus. But for the rest of us, scientists found that a mild electrical shock to the brain increased a person’s ability to learn and retain basic mathematical skills. The boost in mathematical ability lasted at least six months, although it didn’t produce any Albert Einsteins. However, scientists are now experimenting with actual “thinking caps” to see if electrical stimulation of the brain will help general learning and memory.

The Whole Bushel

It’s believed that about 20 percent of the population struggles with math to such a degree that it affects their ability to cope with everyday tasks such as managing money. Even telling time can be a problem. So researchers are studying how to improve our math skills with unconventional methods.

For example, some kids are able to do math with a mental abacus. These children are specially trained for years in rigorous programs, most often in China, Japan, and India. Besides creating a group of whiz kids, the imaginary abacus makes mathematics independent of language.

But these kids aren’t just using their imaginary abaci for simple addition. They can multiply a series of 10-digit numbers or even calculate the square root of a number in the hundreds of thousands without computers, calculators or pen and paper.

According to one study, it appears that the kids can only see three or four columns of an abacus in their minds at one time. However, that didn’t account for the more complex calculations performed by expert students or the fact that most abaci have at least 15 columns of beads. The researchers also discovered that expert mental abacus users were less efficient if they listened to a story or tapped their fingers on furniture while performing their calculations. But they still did much better than college kids without this specialized training. The college students were almost completely unable to perform the calculations if they heard a story at the same time.

“What we found confirms and extends previous work suggesting that mental abacus is not based on language, but is really a mental image of some sort, a visual representation,” said Michael Frank of Stanford University. Mental abaci chunk the numbers into columns which makes it easier to keep the image in the kids’ minds.

But not all of us have the opportunity or desire to train for years in using an imaginary abacus. Not to worry. Scientists have found that a mild electrical shock to the brain increased a person’s ability to learn and retain basic mathematical skills. Following up on an earlier study that shocked participants into better substituting numbers for symbols in a puzzle, scientists tried a new type of painless electrical shock in 2013 called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRSN).

Using a small group of students, TRSN was applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that engages in solving math problems. Both the shocked students and a small control group were asked to add or subtract short series of numbers. After only five days, the TRNS group was able to calculate faster and remember their tasks better than the control group. In a follow-up study, researchers found that the enhanced abilities of the TRNS students were still there after six months, although it didn’t produce any Albert Einsteins. The follow-up TRNS group consisted of only six students, so it’s not clear how effective this method would be on a larger group of people. It’s also not something you can do at home. If you don’t place the electrodes correctly, you can burn your scalp or even impact your brain in a negative way.

However, scientists are now experimenting with actual “thinking caps” to see if mild electrical stimulation of the brain will help general learning and memory. This time, they’re stimulating the medial-frontal cortex of the brain for about 20 minutes per session to supposedly make it easier for participants to learn simple tasks and make decisions. The electrical stimulation is believed to make the brain cells work together more efficiently as they transfer information.

However, the effects were extremely short-term, lasting only about five hours. If scientists can improve their results, they hope to be able to use electrical brain stimulation to help certain people with neurological and psychiatric problems. The long-term side effects of this treatment are not yet known.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: Electric current to the brain ‘boosts maths ability’
CBS News: Mild brain shock may improve math skills
New Scientist: Mental abacus does away with words
LiveScience: Could This ‘Thinking Cap’ Help You Learn?