February 2nd, 2011

Remember Michael Persinger and his “God helmet”? A professor at the University of Sydney and his grad student are working on something similar — and while they claim that it can boost certain kinds of creativity, parapsychologists might find it interesting too.

Until the 1990s, the American-born Allan Snyder was an optical physicist, responsible for some of the key insights that led to the modern  telecom network.  He was awarded the Marconi Prize in 2001 (the year before Tim Berners-Lee won it) and is a fellow of the Royal Society.  But for the past fifteen years or so, most of them at the University of Sydney, he’s been studying the process of insight itself.  He seems to have had little funding; most of his publications have been in lower-impact journals; he has compensated by being very media-friendly; and he’s had a fascination with the use of magnetic and electrical currents to alter brain activity — all of which make me think of him as a sort of Michael Persinger 2.0.

His latest splash appears today in PLoS One.  Under his supervision, grad student Richard Chi used a technique known as transcranial direct current stimulation — basically a couple of 9V batteries wired to saline-soaked, scalp-mounted sponges — to deliver weak currents to the anterior temporal lobes of 60 subjects.  The idea was to depress the activity of the left ATL while increasing that of the right ATL, there being some evidence in the literature that this might boost creativity (as well as religiosity and artistic interests).  Most subjects who received the treatment solved a visual reasoning problem requiring “out of the box” thinking, while most of those who got the reverse polarity or a sham treatment were stumped.  It’s a preliminary finding that other labs will have to reproduce before anyone really takes it seriously; and even if it does work, it isn’t clear yet what the mechanisms are.  But it’s interesting.  And if it really works, it might be worth trying in ESP experiments, since Snyder claims (and has reported in a previous experiment) that it reduces top-down, expectation-driven, left-ATL thinking.  As I discussed in a related post last year, remote viewers are always trying to reduce that top-down perceptual interference with the supposed RV “signal.”  So in principle, Snyder’s device would be a way to boost the remote viewing S/N without drugs or altered-state routines — though I imagine that one could overdo it, shift the ATL balance in favor of the right hemisphere long-term, and start believing, e.g., that aliens are living under the New Mexico desert.  That’s called being “too creative.”

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