Chapter 17. Learning and Memory
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Elizabeth Gibney DeepMind, the Google-owned artificial-intelligence company, has revealed how it created a single computer algorithm that can learn how to play 49 different arcade games, including the 1970s classics Pong and Space Invaders. In more than half of those games, the computer became skilled enough to beat a professional human player. The algorithm — which has generated a buzz since publication of a preliminary version in 2013 (V. Mnih et al. Preprint at http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.5602; 2013) — is the first artificial-intelligence (AI) system that can learn a variety of tasks from scratch given only the same, minimal starting information. “The fact that you have one system that can learn several games, without any tweaking from game to game, is surprising and pretty impressive,” says Nathan Sprague, a machine-learning scientist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. DeepMind, which is based in London, says that the brain-inspired system could also provide insights into human intelligence. “Neuroscientists are studying intelligence and decision-making, and here’s a very clean test bed for those ideas,” says Demis Hassabis, co-founder of DeepMind. He and his colleagues describe the gaming algorithm in a paper published this week (V. Mnih et al. Nature 518, 529–533; 2015. Games are to AI researchers what fruit flies are to biology — a stripped-back system in which to test theories, says Richard Sutton, a computer scientist who studies reinforcement learning at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. “Understanding the mind is an incredibly difficult problem, but games allow you to break it down into parts that you can study,” he says. But so far, most human-beating computers — such as IBM’s Deep Blue, which beat chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, and the recently unveiled algorithm that plays Texas Hold ’Em poker essentially perfectly (see Nature http://doi.org/2dw; 2015)—excel at only one game. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
Charles F. Zorumski It is indeed possible for a person to get intoxicated and not remember what she or he did. This state is called a “blackout” or, more precisely, a “memory blackout.” During a blackout a person is intoxicated but awake and interacting with the environment in seemingly meaningful ways, such as holding a conversation or driving a car. After the period of intoxication, usually the next day, the person has no or, at best, vague recall for events that occurred while inebriated. At times, being in this state can have disastrous consequences, such as waking up in an unknown or unsafe place, losing personal possessions or participating in risky behaviors. On the neural level, a blackout is a period of anterograde amnesia. That is, a person's ability to form new memories becomes impaired. Although a person does not lose previously learned information, he or she may also find it more difficult to recall certain facts while intoxicated. Yet once a person sobers up, his or her memory and ability to learn new information are not permanently affected. How alcohol, or ethanol, produces a memory blackout is not completely understood. It is clear, however, that alcohol can impair a process in brain cells called long-term potentiation (LTP), a cellular mechanism thought to underlie memory formation, particularly in the hippocampus. © 2015 Scientific American
by Catherine Lawson Over the last six years Adam Gazzaley's research has undergone a transformation. He's moved from studying how the brain works, to studying the brain as it ages, then into the domain of applying methodology he's developed to improve the brain's functions. At WIRED Health 2015 he'll outline his vision of the future, one where "we're thinking about software and hardware as medicine". In particular, Gazzaley plans to talk to the WIRED Health audience about video games "that are custom-designed to challenge the brain in a very particular way". Gazzaley's team at University of California, San Francisco previously demonstrated that a custom-designed video game can be highly effective in treating a specific cognitive deficit. They developed NeuroRacer, a driving game aimed at improving multi-tasking skills in older people. The success of NeuroRacer propelled Gazzaley into new partnerships, giving him access to resources that further advance his games development program into areas like motion capture and virtual reality. He's excited about coupling his games with mobile devices that will allow them to function outside the lab. Gazzaley will talk about four new games he's working on, in particular a meditation-inspired one. Meditrain is the product of his collaboration with Buddhist author and teacher Jack Kornfield. Developed for the iPad, he hopes to demonstrate part of it at WIRED Health.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20593 - Posted: 02.19.2015
Carl Zimmer In 2010, a graduate student named Tamar Gefen got to know a remarkable group of older people. They had volunteered for a study of memory at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Although they were all over age 80, Ms. Gefen and her colleagues found that they scored as well on memory tests as people in their 50s. Some complained that they remembered too much. She and her colleagues referred to them as SuperAgers. Many were also friends. “A couple tried to set me up with their grandsons,” Ms. Gefen said. She was impressed by their resilience and humor: “It takes wisdom to a whole new level.” Recently, Ms. Gefen’s research has taken a sharp turn. At the outset of the study, the volunteers agreed to donate their brains for medical research. Some of them have died, and it has been Ms. Gefen’s job to look for anatomical clues to their extraordinary minds. “I had this enormous privilege I can’t even begin to describe,” she said. “I knew them and tested them in life and in death. At the end, I was the one looking at them through a microscope.” Ms. Gefen and her colleagues are now starting to publish the results of these post-mortem studies. Last month in The Journal of Neuroscience, the scientists reported that one of the biggest differences involves peculiar, oversize brain cells known as von Economo neurons. SuperAgers have almost five times as many of them as other people. Learning what makes these brains special could help point researchers to treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of mental decline. But it is hard to say how an abundance of von Economo neurons actually helps the brain. © 2015 The New York Times Company
By Amy Ellis Nutt When we tell stories about our lives, most of us never have our memories questioned. NBC's Brian Williams, like other high-profile people in the past, is finding out what happens when questions arise. Williams's faux pas – retelling a story of his helicopter coming under fire in Iraq a dozen years ago when it was actually the helicopter flying ahead of him – was much like Hillary Rodham Clinton's during the 2008 presidential campaign. Her story was about coming under fire during a visit to an airfield in Bosnia 12 years earlier. George W. Bush also misremembered when, on several occasions, he told audiences that on 9/11 he watched the first plane fly into the north tower of the World Trade Center on TV, just before entering that classroom in Florida to read a book to school kids. In each case, these were highly emotional moments. Williams's helicopter made an emergency landing in the desert behind the aircraft that was hit; Clinton was made to don a flak jacket and was told her airplane might not be able to land at the airport in Bosnia because of sniper fire in the area; and Bush was told by an aide about the first crash into World Trade Center just before entering the classroom. That each of those memories was false created huge public relations headaches for Clinton and Williams. But the fact is that false memories are not that uncommon, especially when they involve highly emotional events. Scientists have been telling us for years that memory of autobiographical events, also known as episodic memory, is pliable and even unreliable. The consensus from neuroimaging studies and laboratory experiments is that episodic memory is not like replaying a film but more like reconstructing an event from bits and pieces of information. Memories are stored in clusters of neurons called engrams, and the proteins responsible for storing those memories, scientists say, are modified and changed just by the reconstruction process of remembering.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20566 - Posted: 02.09.2015
By Kate Baggaley Stem cells can help heal long-term brain damage suffered by rats blasted with radiation, researchers report in the Feb. 5 Cell Stem Cell. The treatment allows the brain to rebuild the insulation on its nerve cells so they can start carrying messages again. The researchers directed human stem cells to become a type of brain cell that is destroyed by radiation, a common cancer treatment, then grafted the cells into the brains of irradiated rats. Within a few months, the rats’ performance on learning and memory tests improved. “This technique, translated to humans, could be a major step forward for the treatment of radiation-induced brain … injury,” says Jonathan Glass, a neurologist at Emory University in Atlanta. Steve Goldman, a neurologist at the University of Rochester in New York, agrees that the treatment could repair a lot of the damage caused by radiation. “Radiation therapy … is very effective, but the problem is patients end up with severe disability,” he says. “Fuzzy thinking, a loss in higher intellectual functions, decreases in memory — all those are part and parcel of radiation therapy to the brain.” For children, the damage can be profound. “Those kids have really significant detriments in their adult IQs,” Goldman says. Radiation obliterates cells that mature into oligodendrocytes, a type of cell that coats the message-carrying part of nerve cells with insulation. Without that cover, known as the myelin sheath, nerve cells can’t transmit information, leading to memory and other brain problems. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015
By Maria Konnikova R. T. first heard about the Challenger explosion as she and her roommate sat watching television in their Emory University dorm room. A news flash came across the screen, shocking them both. R. T., visibly upset, raced upstairs to tell another friend the news. Then she called her parents. Two and a half years after the event, she remembered it as if it were yesterday: the TV, the terrible news, the call home. She could say with absolute certainty that that’s precisely how it happened. Except, it turns out, none of what she remembered was accurate. R. T. was a student in a class taught by Ulric Neisser, a cognitive psychologist who had begun studying memory in the seventies. Early in his career, Neisser became fascinated by the concept of flashbulb memories—the times when a shocking, emotional event seems to leave a particularly vivid imprint on the mind. William James had described such impressions, in 1890, as “so exciting emotionally as almost to leave a scar upon the cerebral tissues.” The day following the explosion of the Challenger, in January, 1986, Neisser, then a professor of cognitive psychology at Emory, and his assistant, Nicole Harsch, handed out a questionnaire about the event to the hundred and six students in their ten o’clock psychology 101 class, “Personality Development.” Where were the students when they heard the news? Whom were they with? What were they doing? The professor and his assistant carefully filed the responses away. In the fall of 1988, two and a half years later, the questionnaire was given a second time to the same students. It was then that R. T. recalled, with absolute confidence, her dorm-room experience. But when Neisser and Harsch compared the two sets of answers, they found barely any similarities.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20548 - Posted: 02.05.2015
Criminal psychopaths learn to respond differently to punishment cues than others in jail and may need more reward-focused treatments, new research suggests. Criminals such as Paul Bernardo, Ted Bundy and Clifford Olson, who scored high on psychopathy checklists, were known to be callous and unemotional. Psychopaths derive pleasure from being manipulative and use premeditated aggression to get what they want with no regard for those who are hurt. The search for what makes them tick has shown some physical differences in their brains such as reductions in grey matter. Now researchers in London, Montreal and Bethseda, Md., have used functional MRI imaging to assess how the brains of 12 violent criminals with psychopathy, 20 violent criminals with antisocial personality disorder but not psychopathy (such as those with a history of impulsivity and risk-taking), and 18 healthy people who were not criminals responded differently to rewards and punishment. "In the room with them, there's the sense that the weight of what they've done and the deleterious effect this is having on their lives doesn't really hold for them," said Dr. Nigel Blackwood of King's College London, a senior author of the paper in Wednesday's issue of Lancet Psychiatry. It's only at the moment in the scanner when the sanction of lost points cues them to change their behaviour that the differences between violent psychopaths and those with antisocial personality disorder appear. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada
Alison Abbott If you have to make a complex decision, will you do a better job if you absorb yourself in, say, a crossword puzzle instead of ruminating about your options? The idea that unconscious thought is sometimes more powerful than conscious thought is attractive, and echoes ideas popularized by books such as writer Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Blink. But within the scientific community, ‘unconscious-thought advantage’ (UTA) has been controversial. Now Dutch psychologists have carried out the most rigorous study yet of UTA — and find no evidence for it. Their conclusion, published this week in Judgement and Decision Making, is based on a large experiment that they designed to provide the best chance of capturing the effect should it exist, along with a sophisticated statistical analysis of previously published data1. The report adds to broader concerns about the quality of psychology studies and to an ongoing controversy about the extent to which unconscious thought in general can influence behaviour. “The bigger debate is about how clever our unconscious is,” says cognitive psychologist David Shanks of University College London. “This carefully constructed paper makes a great contribution.” Shanks published a review last year that questioned research claiming that various unconscious influences, including UTA, affect decision making2. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
By BENEDICT CAREY The surge of emotion that makes memories of embarrassment, triumph and disappointment so vivid can also reach back in time, strengthening recall of seemingly mundane things that happened just beforehand and that, in retrospect, are relevant, a new study has found. The report, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, suggests that the television detective’s standard query — “Do you remember any unusual behavior in the days before the murder?” — is based on solid brain science, at least in some circumstances. The findings fit into the predominant theory of memory: that it is an adaptive process, continually updating itself according to what knowledge may be important in the future. The new study suggests that human memory has, in effect, a just-in-case file, keeping seemingly trivial sights, sounds and observations in cold storage for a time in case they become useful later on. But the experiment said nothing about the effect of trauma, which shapes memory in unpredictable ways. Rather, it aimed to mimic the arousals of daily life: The study used mild electric shocks to create apprehension and measured how the emotion affected memory of previously seen photographs. In earlier work, researchers had found plenty of evidence in animals and humans of this memory effect, called retroactive consolidation. The new study shows that the effect applies selectively to related, relevant information. “The study provides strong evidence for a specific kind of retroactive enhancement,” said Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard who was not involved in the research. “The findings go beyond what we’ve found previously in humans.” © 2015 The New York Times Company
Research suggests that only 20–30% of drug users actually descend into addiction — defined as the persistent seeking and taking of drugs even in the face of dire personal consequences. Why are some people who use drugs able to do so without turning into addicts, while others continue to abuse, even when the repercussions range from jail time to serious health problems? In a comprehensive review in the European Journal of Neuroscience, Barry Everitt outlines the neural correlates and learning-based processes associated with the transition from drug use, to abuse, to addiction. Drug seeking begins as a goal-directed behavior, with an action (finding and taking drugs) leading to a particular outcome (the drug high). This type of associative learning is mediated by the dorsomedial region of the striatum, the area of the brain that is associated with reward processing, which functions primarily through the neurotransmitter dopamine. In this kind of learning, devaluing the outcome (by decreasing the potency of the drug, for example) tends to decrease the pursuit of the action. When the high is not what it used to be, the motivation to continue seeking it out decreases. However, in long-term abusers, this devalued outcome does not reduce the action — indeed, researchers have found that in cases of chronic drug use, a parallel associative learning process eventually comes to the fore. This process is one of stimulus–response; the conditioned stimuli in this case are the various environmental cues — the sight of the powdery white stuff, the smell of burning aluminum foil — that users associate with getting high and that compel them to seek out drugs. © Association for Psychological Science
It is now one hundred years since drugs were first banned - and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction, by our teachers, and by our governments. This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It seems obvious. It seems manifestly true. Until I set off three and a half years ago on a 30,000-mile journey for my book 'Chasing The Scream - The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs' to figure out what is really driving the drug war, I believed it too. But what I learned on the road is that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong - and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it. If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves. I learned it from an extraordinary mixture of people I met on my travels. From the surviving friends of Billie Holiday, who helped me to learn how the founder of the war on drugs stalked and helped to kill her. From a Jewish doctor who was smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto as a baby, only to unlock the secrets of addiction as a grown man. From a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who was conceived when his mother, a crack-addict, was raped by his father, an NYPD officer. From a man who was kept at the bottom of a well for two years by a torturing dictatorship, only to emerge to be elected President of Uruguay and to begin the last days of the war on drugs. ©2015 TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc.
Closing your eyes when trying to recall events increases the chances of accuracy, researchers at the University of Surrey suggest. Scientists tested people's ability to remember details of films showing fake crime scenes. They hope the studies will help witnesses recall details more accurately when questioned by police. They say establishing a rapport with the person asking the questions can also help boost memory. Writing in the journal Legal and Criminological Psychology, scientists tested 178 participants in two separate experiments. In the first, they asked volunteers to watch a film showing an electrician entering a property, carrying out work and then stealing a number of items. Volunteers were then questioned in one of four groups. People were either asked questions with their eyes open or closed, and after a sense of rapport had been built with the interviewer or no attempt had been made to create a friendly introduction. People who had some rapport with their interviewer and had their eyes shut throughout questioning answered three-quarters of the 17 questions correctly. But those who did not have a friendly introduction with the interviewer and had their eyes open answered 41% correctly. The analysis showed that eye closing had the strongest impact on remembering details correctly ,but that feeling comfortable during the interview also helped. In the second experiment, people were asked to remember details of what they had heard during a mock crime scene. © 2015 BBC
By James Gallagher Health editor, BBC News website The key to learning and memory in early life is a lengthy nap, say scientists. Trials with 216 babies up to 12 months old indicated they were unable to remember new tasks if they did not have a lengthy sleep soon afterwards. The University of Sheffield team suggested the best time to learn may be just before sleep and emphasised the importance of reading at bedtime. Experts said sleep may be much more important in early years than at other ages. People spend more of their time asleep as babies than at any other point in their lives. Yet the researchers, in Sheffield and Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany, say "strikingly little is known" about the role of sleep in the first year of life. Learn, sleep, repeat They taught six- to 12-month-olds three new tasks involving playing with hand puppets. Half the babies slept within four hours of learning, while the rest either had no sleep or napped for fewer than 30 minutes. The next day, the babies were encouraged to repeat what they had been taught. The results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed "sleeping like a baby" was vital for learning. On average one-and-a-half tasks could be repeated after having a substantial nap. Yet zero tasks could be repeated if there was little sleep time. Dr Jane Herbert, from the department of psychology at the University of Sheffield, told the BBC News website: "Those who sleep after learning learn well, those not sleeping don't learn at all." © 2015 BBC
by Michael Hotchkiss Forget about it. Your brain is a memory powerhouse, constantly recording experiences in long-term memory. Those memories help you find your way through the world: Who works the counter each morning at your favorite coffee shop? How do you turn on the headlights of your car? What color is your best friend's house? But then your barista leaves for law school, you finally buy a new car and your buddy spends the summer with a paint brush in hand. Suddenly, your memories are out of date. What happens next? An experiment conducted by researchers from Princeton University and the University of Texas-Austin shows that the human brain uses memories to make predictions about what it expects to find in familiar contexts. When those subconscious predictions are shown to be wrong, the related memories are weakened and are more likely to be forgotten. And the greater the error, the more likely you are to forget the memory. "This has the benefit ultimately of reducing or eliminating noisy or inaccurate memories and prioritizing those things that are more reliable and that are more accurate in terms of the current state of the world," said Nicholas Turk-Browne, an associate professor of psychology at Princeton and one of the researchers. The research was featured in an article, "Pruning of memories by context-based prediction error," that appeared in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The other co-authors are Ghootae Kim, a Princeton graduate student; Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin; and Kenneth Norman, a Princeton professor of psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. © Medical Xpress 2011-2014,
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20469 - Posted: 01.10.2015
George Johnson Training a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell would have seemed pretty stupid to Ivan Pavlov. He was after much bigger things. Using instruments like metronomes and harmoniums, he demonstrated that a dog could make astonishingly fine discriminations — distinguishing between a rhythm of 96 and 104 beats a minute or an ascending and a descending musical scale. But what he really wanted to know was what his animals were thinking. His dream was a grand theory of the mind. He couldn’t put his subjects on a couch like his colleague Freud and ask them to free-associate, so he gauged their reactions to a variety of stimuli, meticulously counting their “psychic secretions,” those droplets of drool. He knew he was pricking at the skin of something deeper. “It would be stupid,” he said, “to reject the subjective world.” This is not the Pavlov most people think they know. In an excellent new biography, “Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science,” Daniel P. Todes, a medical historian, describes a man whose laboratory in pre-Soviet Russia was like an early-20th-century version of the White House Brain Initiative, with its aim “to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind.” That was also Pavlov’s goal: to build a science that would “brightly illuminate our mysterious nature” and “our consciousness and its torments.” He spoke those words 111 years ago and spent his life pursuing his goal. Yet when we hear his name, we reflexively think of a drooling dog and a clanging bell. Our brains have been conditioned with the myth. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20439 - Posted: 12.23.2014
by Helen Thomson HAVE you read this before? A 23-year-old man from the UK almost certainly feels like he has – he's the first person to report persistent déjà vu stemming from anxiety rather than any obvious neurological disorder. Nobody knows exactly how or why déjà vu happens, but for most of us it is rare. Some people experience it more often, as a side effect associated with epileptic seizures or dementia. Now, researchers have discovered the first person with what they call "psychogenic déjà vu" – where the cause appears to be psychological. The man's episodes began just after he started university, a period when he felt anxious and was also experiencing obsessive compulsions. As time went on, his déjà vu became more and more prolonged, and then fairly continuous after he tried LSD. Now, he avoids television and radio, and finds newspapers distressing as the content feels familiar. There are different theories as to what is going on, says Christine Wells at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, who has written a paper on the man's experiences. "The general theory is that there's a misfiring of neurons in the temporal lobes – which deal with recollection and familiarity. That misfiring during the process of recollection means we interpret a moment in time as something that has already been experienced," she says. Surprisingly, when Wells gave the man a standard recall test, he scored more similarly to people of his own age without the condition than those with epilepsy-related déjà vu. An MRI and an EEG scan of his brain activity also showed no abnormalities. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By David Noonan It was the day before Christmas, and the normally busy MIT laboratory on Vassar Street in Cambridge was quiet. But creatures were definitely stirring, including a mouse that would soon be world famous. Steve Ramirez, a 24-year-old doctoral student at the time, placed the mouse in a small metal box with a black plastic floor. Instead of curiously sniffing around, though, the animal instantly froze in terror, recalling the experience of receiving a foot shock in that same box. It was a textbook fear response, and if anything, the mouse’s posture was more rigid than Ramirez had expected. Its memory of the trauma must have been quite vivid. Which was amazing, because the memory was bogus: The mouse had never received an electric shock in that box. Rather, it was reacting to a false memory that Ramirez and his MIT colleague Xu Liu had planted in its brain. “Merry Freaking Christmas,” read the subject line of the email Ramirez shot off to Liu, who was spending the 2012 holiday in Yosemite National Park. The observation culminated more than two years of a long-shot research effort and supported an extraordinary hypothesis: Not only was it possible to identify brain cells involved in the encoding of a single memory, but those specific cells could be manipulated to create a whole new “memory” of an event that never happened. “It’s a fantastic feat,” says Howard Eichenbaum, a leading memory researcher and director of the Center for Neuroscience at Boston University, where Ramirez did his undergraduate work. “It’s a real breakthrough that shows the power of these techniques to address fundamental questions about how the brain works.” In a neuroscience breakthrough, the duo implanted a false memory in a mouse
By Gary Stix Our site recently ran a great story about how brain training really doesn’t endow you instantly with genius IQ. The games you play just make you better at playing those same games. They aren’t a direct route to a Mensa membership. Just a few days before that story came out—Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—published a report that suggested that playing action video games, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and the like—actually lets gamers learn the essentials of a particular visual task (the orientation of a Gabor signal—don’t ask) more rapidly than non-gamers, a skill that has real-world relevance beyond the confines of the artificial reality of the game itself. As psychologists say, it has “transfer effects.” Gamers appear to have learned how to do stuff like home in quickly on a target or multitask better than those who inhabit the non-gaming world. Their skills might, in theory, make them great pilots or laparoscopic surgeons, not just high scorers among their peers. Action video games are not billed as brain training, but both Call of Duty and nominally accredited training programs like Lumosity are both structured as computer games. So that leads to the question of what’s going on here? Every new finding about brain training as B.S. appears to be contradicted by another that points to the promise of cognitive exercise, if that’s what you call a session with Call of Duty. It may boil down to a realization that the whole story about exercising your neurons to keep the brain supple may be a lot less simple than proponents make it out to be. © 2014 Scientific American
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20409 - Posted: 12.13.2014
by Helen Thomson Zapping your brain might make you better at maths tests – or worse. It depends how anxious you are about taking the test in the first place. A recent surge of studies has shown that brain stimulation can make people more creative and better at maths, and can even improve memory, but these studies tend to neglect individual differences. Now, Roi Cohen Kadosh at the University of Oxford and his colleagues have shown that brain stimulation can have completely opposite effects depending on your personality. Previous research has shown that a type of non-invasive brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) – which enhances brain activity using an electric current – can improve mathematical ability when applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area involved in regulating emotion. To test whether personality traits might affect this result, Kadosh's team tried the technique on 25 people who find mental arithmetic highly stressful, and 20 people who do not. They found that participants with high maths anxiety made correct responses more quickly and, after the test, showed lower levels of cortisol, an indicator of stress. On the other hand, individuals with low maths anxiety performed worse after tDCS. "It is hard to believe that all people would benefit similarly [from] brain stimulation," says Cohen Kadosh. He says that further research could shed light on how to optimise the technology and help to discover who is most likely to benefit from stimulation. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.