Would you shock your brain to cope with culture shock?

In a paper published this last Friday, university of Oxford researchers showed that electrical stimulation may help people learn numbers faster (see Julian Savulescu’s post for Why Bioenhancement of Mathematical Ability Is Ethically Important). In the experiment, 20 min of stimulation to the right parietal lobe, a brain region shown previously to be important in numerical ability, caused subjects to faster learn the relative magnitudes ( i.e. which is bigger) of a set of nonsense symbols. Proper magnitude of each symbol was assigned beforehand by the experimenters.

When Cardiff University’s Christopher Chambers was reached for comment in the BBC article covering this paper, “he said that the study did not prove that the learning of maths skills was improved, just that the volunteers were better at linking arbitrary numbers and symbols and warned that the researchers needed to make sure other parts of the brain were unaffected.” Dr Chambers has an important cautionary point, but could learning the magnitudes of arbitrary symbols alone be beneficial? And how much would it matter if other brain areas were affected?

Having recently moved from the United States to Ireland and then to England, my answers would be an emphatic YES to the former and a maybe-not-that-much to the latter.

When I left behind my peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches and super bowls I found myself confronted with a range of symbols I had to orient within my own numerical symbology. What is bigger, an ml or a fluid oz, a lb or a kg, a °f or a °C, a g or an oz? Or for that matter, an English pint of ale or an American pint of ale, an English shot of spirits or an American one? It took me quite a while to figure out that the English pint is bigger than the American, which resulted in my leaving the pub somewhat more wobbly-legged than intended. Expat friends of mine who prefer spirits had the opposite problem, as the American shot is almost 30% bigger than the English. While I will refrain from wild speculation on the origin of these alcohol measure differences, the point is that different cultures have hoards of different symbols that carry numerical information. Not knowing the proper magnitudes for these arbitrary symbols or how they fit into the competing system that we immigrants have used our entire lives contributes heavily to culture shock and presents a significant barrier for smooth integration within the new society. The stimulation methods used in this paper could ameliorate these problems.

What about Dr Chamber’s second concern that other brain functions might be impaired upon stimulation? This scenario seems likely because current applied in the reverse direction across the brain reduced symbolic numerical learning to that of a primary school child. Because electrodes are placed on either side of the head, the direction of current flow in the right parietal lobe would be the opposite in the left parietal lobe. Although it would need to be verified experimentally, it seems likely that when the mathy-right parietal lobe is enhanced, the functions of the opposite side are inhibited and vice versa.

As long as the impairment is short-lived, however, it shouldn’t be a problem. The effects of the stimulation on brain function fade after a short amount of time, but what is learned during that period sticks with you. This means that we are not enhancing numerical ability per se, which would need to be constantly enhanced, but rather numerical learning. By using this temporary strategy we shift from robbing Peter to Pay Paul, to robbing Peter, investing the money in a hedge fund, and then paying Paul and Peter afterwards. The resilience, here, to side effects highlights a key advantage of selective learning enhancements over “steady state” enhancements. That said, I would still hesitate to get into a car after my stimulation session before it was established just what are the side effects and how long do they last.

Would you use direct current stimulation to cope with culture shock? I am tempted to walk down the street to visit the lab that published this paper.

What if the country to which you were moving required a cultural-numerical literacy stimulation course before you could get a visa? After all, the country has a vested interest in making sure that you can navigate its society’s ins and outs…

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