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Tech: Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation for ESL


I've dreamt of a magical pillow that would train my brain while I slept or upload knowledge directly into my brain without studying, and although those are just fantasies, there are interesting technological advancements which might one day have an effect on education and ESL.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a non-invasive neuromodulation technique where electrodes are attached to the learner's head or sometimes also to an arm or other affected areas for what is being learned. These electrodes are also connected to a small electrical current, about 2 milliamps, which will continuously excite the brain and promote cerebral plasticity and mental flexibility. This technique, tDCS, has shown promise for rehabilitating sufferers of mental aphasia from strokes or disorders, helping to rebuild and reinforce mental pathways. Of course doctors and researchers are studying tDCS's medical application, but DARPA and other military interests are also researching potentials for enhancing cognitive performance and learning in pilots and soliders. Even commercial retail headsets marketed to video game players are available, but because the electronics are relatively simple, there is a substantial community of online DIYers who experiment with tDCS to help learn a variety of things, including languages. Many self-experimenters got interested because research studies have shown tDCS to have a variety of fascinating effects, depending on electrode location and the amount of stimulation. Faster learning, better math skills, improved memory, more creativity: All these enhancements have been observed in one study or another. Academic studies suggest that tDCS over language-related areas of the brain modulate linguistic abilities and can improve language learning performance by exciting the brain and increasing meaningful focus. When electrodes are placed on the left side of the brain, over ?Wernicke's area? in the temporal lobe, language processing, learning, and development are enhanced in 30 minute exercises.

The brain is a cluster of electricity, so zapping it with a mild electrical current apparently just ups the ante for greater rewards. While focusing on something you want to create a deeper association with, this extra electrical boost adds energy towards forming those pathways in your brain, and users describe a greater degree of focus and attention, something like being 'in the zone' while focusing on subjects that would otherwise be frustrating or challenging.

We may still be a ways away from uploading homework into our students brain-training pillows for them to download overnight, but it will be interesting to see how tDCS technology may one day influence education. Especially as wearable technology becomes more and more feasible, someday we may have to decide whether using tDCS to learn a language is considered cheating or common practice.

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