Feeding knowledge directly into your brain, just like in sci-fi classic The Matrix, could soon take as much effort as falling asleep, scientists believe.
Researchers claim to have developed a simulator which can feed information directly into a person’s brain and teach them new skills in a shorter amount of time, comparing it to “life imitating art”.
They believe it could be the first steps in developing advanced software that will make Matrix-style instant learning a reality.
In the neo-noir sci-fi classic, protagonist Neo is able to learn kung fu in seconds after the martial art is ‘uploaded’ straight to his brain.
Researchers from HRL Laboratories, based in California, say they have found a way to amplify learning, only on a much smaller scale than seen in the Hollywood film.
They studied the electric signals in the brain of a trained pilot and then fed the data into novice subjects as they learned to pilot an aeroplane in a realistic flight simulator.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that subjects who received brain stimulation via electrode-embedded head caps improved their piloting abilities and learnt the task 33 per cent better than a placebo group.
“Our system is one of the first of its kind. It’s a brain stimulation system,” explained Dr Matthew Phillips.
“It sounds kind of sci-fi, but there’s large scientific basis for the development of our system.
“The specific task we were looking at was piloting an aircraft, which 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 neuro-plasticity.
“It turns out that certain functions of the brain, like speech and memory, are located in very specific regions of the brain, about the size of your pinky.”
Dr Matthews believes that brain stimulation could eventually be implemented for tasks like learning to drive, exam preparation and language learning
“What our system does is it actually targets those changes to specific regions of the brain as you learn,” he added.
“The method itself is actually quite old. In fact, the ancient Egyptians 4000 years ago used electric fish to stimulate and reduce pain.
“Even Ben Franklin applied currents to his head, but the rigorous, scientific investigation of these methods started in the early 2000s and we’re building on that research to target and personalise a stimulation in the most effective way possible.
“Your brain is going to be very different to my brain when we perform a task. What we found is … brain stimulation seems to be particularly effective at actually improving learning.”
Meanwhile, a recent study found that intelligent people are more easily distracted at work.
However, skeptics came to a different conclusion.
As reported above, researchers from HRL Laboratories, based in California, studied the electric signals in the brain of a trained pilot and then fed the data into novice subjects as they learned to pilot an aeroplane in a realistic flight simulator… subjects who received brain stimulation via electrode-embedded head caps improved their piloting abilities and learnt the task 33 per cent better than a placebo group.
Except… that’s not what happened at all.
It’s true that the researchers electrically stimulated some volunteers’ brains, using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). It’s true that the goal was to try and make the volunteers learn better, as described in the paper. But no-one was uploading anything – certainly not data recorded from ‘the electrical signals of a trained pilot’ which is not mentioned in the paper at all. That’s science fiction. Or rather, journalistic fiction.
In fact, the tDCS was intended to put the brain into a state such that it would learn faster – to somehow boost its natural neuroplasticity. When you think about it, this is no more Matrix-like than if you, say, drank a cup of coffee before studying for an exam. In one case the stimulation is electrical, in the other it’s chemical, but you don’t download knowledge in either case.
But it gets worse. The Telegraph reports that the tDCS was effective – it made people learn 33% better on a flight simulator task. Wow! But it didn’t. tDCS had no effect on mean performance on any of the five performance indicators on the flight sim task. The only significant result was that on some of the metrics, stimulation was associated with significantly reduced between-subject variance, i.e. it made people more similar to one another (but not better on average).
The authors conclude
The observed reduction in group variability in online learning may be attributed to “convergence to the mean” (i.e., increasing online learning rates of low performing individuals and reducing online learning rates of high performing individuals).
However as the groups in this study were very small (32 participants were split across four groups, of 7-10 people each), the variance was rather noisy. The authors themselves mention “exceptionally high within-group variance.” To be honest, I would want to see a lot more data before I was convinced that something as unusual as ‘convergence to the mean’ was happening.
Either way, the Telegraph article is wrong about 33% increases in learning performance. The press release from HRL Laboratories about the study seems to be the source of most of the errors, including the Matrix analogy. But we must free our minds from the illusion of press releases, Neo. Remember… all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
September 21st, 2018