Brain Zaps Improve Math

Need to improve your math skills or do your taxes faster? Try zapping your brain with electricity. Researchers have shown that administering a small electrical charge to the brain may enhance a person’s ability to process numbers for up to 6 months. The team says the approach, which it claims is harmless, could one day restore numerical skills in people suffering from degenerative diseases or stroke, and it may even improve the math abilities of the general population.

The brain’s math center appears to be the right side of the parietal lobe, a region that sits beneath the crown of the head. People with injuries to this region have difficulty counting, and it’s unusually active in young children learning their 1, 2, 3s. Those findings made Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, wonder if stimulating this part of the brain could improve a person’s ability to manipulate numbers.

Cohen Kadosh and colleagues recruited 15 university students and trained them to learn the value of nine made-up symbols, including shapes that looked like triangles and staples (see picture). To replicate what children go through when they first learn numbers, the researchers presented the volunteers with two symbols at a time and asked them which one had a higher value. At first, the volunteers had to guess, because they had never seen the symbols before. But as the training progressed, those volunteers who remembered their correct guesses began to learn the relative value of all nine symbols.

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