Could electrical stimulation to the brain help you learn faster? The US military thinks so.

“The brain is just so f—ing sexy right now.”

That is the candid summation of Dr Jared Horvath​, an educational neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne, for why so many people are attaching gadgets to their skull for the purpose of stimulating (though not in the lowbrow way) that wobbly mass between their ears.

“The promise is so strong. Hey, congratulations, I can make you better, faster, stronger, by changing nothing in your life except putting on this device. Who doesn’t want that? It’s such a sexy promise,” says Horvath.

It’s a decade since Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself popularised the concept of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to form new connections in the process of learning. There’s since been an explosion of interest in brain stimulation as a way to beef up neuroplasticity, in the hope it will accelerate learning, memory and brain repair.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which passes a weak electric current across the brain with scalp electrodes, claims a small army of DIY adherents trying to boost alertness and concentration, as well as serious scientists aiming, among other things, to reverse cognitive impairment in older people.

A related method, transcranial magnetic stimulation, is an approved treatment for depression, but also has life-changing potential to ramp up emotional intelligence in autism, something eloquently described by John Elder Robison​ in his 2016 autobiography Switched On.

But the big recent news in brain-tickling comes from the slightly shadowy research arm of the US Department of Defence.

In April, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the recipients of US$50 million funding into a technique it dubs “targeted neuroplasticity training” (TNT), something DARPA hopes will clip 30 per cent off the time it takes to learn a foreign language, and turbocharge training in related cloak-and-daggery such as code-breaking and intelligence-gathering.

With terror on the rise, mastery of foreign phrasebooks is front and centre for national security. But the push to exploit neuroplasticity is also gripping the wider education community, and will be the subject of a major international conference in Brisbane this September.

So there are plenty of folk with an interest in the nitty gritty on the DARPA research and, crucially, whether it can deliver.

Read the full feature in the Age newspaper here

Brain power