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What's a "thinking cap" -- and could it make me a genius?

        Science | Devices

How Thinking Caps Could Work
Responsibility for functions of the human brain (like this one shown in an MRI scan) is divided by hemisphere, a distribution known as lateralization.
Responsibility for functions of the human brain (like this one shown in an MRI scan) is divided by hemisphere, a distribution known as lateralization.
Image Bank/­Getty Images

­Snyder's work is predicated on the idea that all humans have the ability to produce works of both creative and scientific genius. Our ability to do so is ironically "impaired" by normal brain functioning. The researcher, who directs the Centre for the Mind in Sydney, Australia, is primarily involved with studying autistic savants, people who are mentally deficient in some areas but excel in other, more specialized areas, like mathematics or music. Snyder theorizes that we're all potential savants, and this idea is supported by cases of people who've suffered brain damage but gain an extraordinary ability. Upon investigation, he found these people had all suffered damage to the left side of their brains [source: Phillips]. To test his theories, Snyder turned to transcranial magnetic stimulation, the "thinking cap."

Brain function remains largely a mystery to science, but neurologists have come to believe the right hemisphere is concerned with evaluating the big picture, or "the forest," while the detail-oriented left hemisphere evaluates "the trees" [source: Brown]. This division of responsibilities is called the lateralization of brain function. Snyder hypothesizes that those with properly functioning left brain hemispheres possess the ability to create what he calls mindsets -- personal, mental definitions based on experience [source: Phillips]. These mindsets are created through our interaction with the world. When we encounter a new experience, like seeing an animal for the first time, the brain categorizes and stores our perception of that animal. Is it dangerous? Does it have fur? All of this is packaged and available for recall so we don't have to relearn our initial perception of the animal each time we encounter it [source: Phillips].

Snyder believes that the savant traits he's trying to replicate in people with normal brain functions results from a loss of the ability to create mindsets. Therefore, each experience is fresh and untainted by past encounters. This "raw data" would allow a savant -- and apparently a person under TMS -- to produce a drawing or edit text unencumbered by any previous notions about the subject.

It's impossible to say whether Snyder's hypothesis is correct. Although his tests using TMS support his theories, science doesn't have a firm enough grasp on the human brain to prove or disprove them. It wasn't until the late 1990s that neurologists came to accept the lateral divisions of brain function concept [source: Brown].

­Snyder's theories are supported by demonstrated effects for another use for TMS -- treating mental illness by disrupting brain function. Although it has emerged in Israel and Canada as an alternative to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT -- more commonly known as shock therapy), it has yet to receive FDA approval for widespread use in the United States [source: NAMI]. It's been widely shown that TMS can be used to treat conditions like schizophrenia; the effectiveness of TMS in treating mental illness, coupled with Snyder's results, show what could be a blurring of the line between insanity and creative genius.