Downloading skills and knowledge directly into an individual’s brain is the stuff of science fiction. As we have learned, science fiction has a way of becoming science fact. Research is currently being performed by the US Air Force that, while not quite a download, is a method of manipulating the brain for enhanced learning (Parasuraman, R. and McKinley, R.A., Using Noninvasive Brain Stimulation to Accelerate Learning and Enhance Human Performance, HUMAN FACTORS, Vol. 56, No. 5, August 2014, pp. 816–824).
Called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, the Air Force has found a way to speed learning by 60%. The techniques involve applying electrical stimulation to the portion of the brain associated with the learning of specific skills and knowledge. It is theorized that the stimulation increases the plasticity of the brain, enabling it to more easily undergo the structural changes that occur with learning. An example of the impact of tDCS is shown in the figure below.
While the subjects in the “Sham” group (no stimulation) got better with practice, the tDCS group did so faster and with greater improvement.
It is estimated that a complex skill can require 10,000 hours of practice to master. The use of tDCS has the potential to reduce that by 6,000 man-hours, or about three man-years. The technique improves both procedural knowledge (what to do) and declarative knowledge (stating facts). While there is still much to learn about tDCS, we may be seeing the future of science fact.
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