Penn Researchers’ Shocking News: Electric Shock Makes Your Brain More Creative

The Atlantic reports on a Penn research experiment that suggests an electric shock can boost “out-of-the-box” thinking. Researchers hooked up 48 subjects to electrodes, then sent pulses through the patients’ right and left prefrontal cortexes—the latter of which is associated with “self-editing.”

Both people who had current sent through their right prefrontal cortex, and those who didn’t receive any electrical charge, were stumped by an average of 15 of the 60 objects. Those whose left prefrontal cortexes were deactivated, on the other hand, missed an average of only 8. They were also about a second faster in their responses.

“It was surprising to me how big the finding was” Sharon Thompson-Schill, one of the study’s authors, told me. “What I thought we would see was something on the order of milliseconds, and no difference in accuracy,” she explained. Instead, “we were cutting in half the number of times that people failed to come up with something.”

The results don’t apply to all thought processes that we might call “creative,” said Thompson, but only to ones in which there isn’t a clear goal you’re trying to achieve — as with musical freestyle or improvisation. When it comes to cognitive control, she explained, we tend to assume that more is always better, and attempts to enhance that ability are a stalwart of cognitive psychology. “Being able to dynamically turn on and off the amount of control you have could be a useful skill to acquire,” said Thompson. “Whether you should slap an electrode on the side of your head to do it … I wouldn’t go so far as to say that.”

In other words, if you have writer’s block: Don’t go hooking yourself up to a car battery just yet.