Large numbers of pupils and university students are not excited about the prospect of studying mathematics, yet researchers in the UK and the Netherlands have found that exciting a brain region using electrical-noise stimulation can help improve mathematical learning in those who struggle with the subject.
During this unique study, researchers investigated the impact of neurostimulation on learning. Despite the growing interest in this non-invasive technique, little is known about the neurophysiological changes induced or the effect it has on learning.
How can you stimulate your brain to be better at math?
Previous research has highlighted the role of the excitation/inhibition ratio for typical and atypical development, mental health, cognition, and learning. Other research has highlighted the benefits of high-frequency random-noise stimulation – an excitatory form of neurostimulation – on learning.
Researchers found that electrical noise stimulation over the frontal part of the brain improved the mathematical ability of people whose brain was less excited (by mathematics) before the application of stimulation. No improvement in mathematical scores was identified in those who had a high level of brain excitation during the initial assessment or in the placebo groups. Researchers believe that electrical noise stimulation acts on the sodium channels in the brain, interfering with the cell membrane of the neurons, which increases cortical excitability.
Study leader and cognitive neuroscience Prof. Roi Cohen Kadosh, who earned his doctorate in neuropsychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and who is now head of the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey, said: “Learning is key to everything we do in life – from developing new skills like driving a car to learning how to code. Our brains are constantly absorbing and acquiring new knowledge. Previously, we showed that a person’s ability to learn is associated with neuronal excitation in their brains. What we wanted to discover in this case is whether our novel stimulation protocol could boost, in other words excite, this activity and improve mathematical skills.”
He was assisted by Dr. Nienke van Bueren from the UK’s Radboud University, who was co-leader under Cohen Kadosh’s supervision. They published their findings in the journal PLOS Biology under the title “Human neuronal excitation/inhibition balance explains and predicts neurostimulation induced learning benefits.”
A total of 102 participants were recruited and their math skills assessed through a series of multiplication problems. Participants were then split into four groups – a learning group exposed to high-frequency random electrical-noise stimulation, an overlearning group in which participants practiced the multiplication beyond the point of mastery with high-frequency, random electrical-noise stimulation. The remaining two groups consisted of a learning and overlearning group, but they were exposed to a placebo condition, an experience akin to real stimulation without applying significant electrical currents. EEG recordings were taken at the beginning and at the end of the stimulation to measure brain activity.
The findings proved that individuals with lower brain excitability may be more receptive to noise stimulation, leading to enhanced learning outcomes, while those with high brain excitability might not experience the same benefits in their mathematical abilities, the authors wrote.
“What we have found is how this promising neurostimulation works and under which conditions the stimulation protocol is most effective,” Cohen Kadosh concluded. “This discovery could not only pave the way for a more tailored approach in a person’s learning journey but also shed light on the optimal timing and duration of its application.”