Want to learn to fly like a pro? Zap your brain

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Recording what goes on under a pilot’s helmet and transmitting those brain signals to a novice can increase learning, new research suggests. – VCL/Spencer Rowell/Getty images

Brain patterns recorded from expert pilots and zapped into a novice's brain using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can improve their flying skills, researchers say.

Writing in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, American scientists used electrode-embedded cranial caps, which fit like swimming caps, to zap novice pilots with expert pilot brainwave patterns. After receiving brain stimulation, the beginners showed 33% increase in skill consistency in flight simulators compared to those who received "sham" stimulation.

And, the researchers say, their work may reach into other realms of learning and education.

"As we discover more about optimising, personalising and adapting brain stimulation protocols, we'll likely see these technologies become routine in training and classroom environments," said senior study author Matthew Phillips from HRL Laboratories, a research facility owned by General Motors and Boeing based in Malibu, California.

Piloting and landing a plane involves skills learnt through hours of training and practice in flight simulators – not just in the air.

Excellent flight simulator performance has been linked to top-notch reasoning and working memory in pilots; on the flip side, pilots who make more errors have worse working memory.

So Phillips and his colleagues wanted to see if stimulating the part of the brain responsible for cognitive performance with a low-current stimulation technique – tDCS – could make learners gain skills faster.

They focused on the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain linked to working memory. It is a favourite stimulation target for DIY tDCS enthusiasts, but research surrounding the technique has been murky at best.

Phillips and his colleagues recorded brainwave patterns from six expert commercial and military pilots.

A pool of 32 novice pilots participated in four consecutive days of tDCS zapping via the electrode caps, which let the researchers finely tune the area of the brain being stimulated.

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But while some got brainwaves to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the rest received fake stimulation, which tingled the skin under the electrodes but didn’t transmit any current, or received stimulation to the motor cortex, a part of the brain responsible for movement but not associated with working memory.

The research team found those pilots who received stimulation to the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex landed a plane in the flight simulator more smoothly than their non-stimulated counterparts.

How long this effect lasted wasn't clear in the study. And while tDCS may reduce pilots’ training hours, and therefore costs associated with flight simulators, they admit “it is too early to confirm or deny any useful improvements to simulation training” until scientists completely understand the complexities and contributing factors to the improvements seemingly brought on by brain stimulation.


Further reading:
The buzz around brain stimulation
Electric currents help the mind dream and wander

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