If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This week, a team from California research facility, HRL Laboratories, announced that they’d invented an interface that could teach total novices to pilot a flight simulator using a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which they say accelerates learning and skill retention.
"We measured the brain activity patterns of six commercial and military pilots, and then transmitted these patterns into novice subjects as they learned to pilot an airplane in a realistic flight simulator," lead researcher Matthew Phillips said in a press release, adding that the system instantly improved their piloting abilities and had them flying like pros.
Sounds amazing, right? Just like when Neo had jiu-jitsu and kung fu skills uploaded directly into his brain in The Matrix, learning a new skill with zero effort is the absolute dream.
But despite what headlines like "Scientists discover how to upload knowledge to your brain," and "Take the red pill: researchers develop Matrix-style brain stimulator that instantly teaches skill," imply, we’re nowhere near making this a reality.
Crushing disappointment aside, let’s look at what’s wrong with this study.
Publishing in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, the HRL Labs team describes the experiment, which involved 32 research subjects who had zero pilot training and six professional pilots. The pilots were asked to fly an aeroplane in a realistic flight simulator while their brain activity was monitored.
Next, the research subjects were strapped into the flight simulator while their brains were stimulated to mimic the activity of the pilots. Sometimes their brains were stimulated randomly to rule out the placebo effect.
John Wenz at Popular Mechanics explains the results:
"The most significant results were found in the 4–7Hz energy range, or 'theta'. The newbie pilots were given a variety of aviating tasks, including landing the plane. They excelled at landing, but couldn't quite figure out flight deviations from a false malfunctioning autopilot."
Having seen the research subjects learn new skills while the control group did not, the researchers concluded that they had, "discovered that low-current electrical brain stimulation can modulate the learning of complex real-world skills".
The first problem with all of this is the actual journal the team chose to publish their results in. As Wenz points out, Frontiers of Human Neuroscience is owned by Frontiers Media, which has been at the centre of much controversy in recent years, having been forced to very publicly retract multiple bogus studies and defend their highly suspect 'pay to publish' model that has been widely condemned by scientists.
In this case, "It’s guilt by association," says George Dvorsky at Gizmodo, "but the strength of a study can often be gleaned by the quality of the journal it’s published in."
The second problem is that the team appears to be under a lot of pressure to make this invention work, or at least make it look like it does. As Dvorsky explains, HRL Laboratories does R&D for the Boeing Company and General Motors, and have already filed a patent for their 'brain-boosting' interface, so the prospect of financial gain could have clouded the results, or their perception of the results.
Mark S. George, a professor of psychiatry, radiology, and neurosciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, and editor-in-chief of the science journal Brain Stimulation, told Gizmodo that the results are based on a "small sample study in vulnerable employees, performed by scientists with patents pending that will be influenced by the outcome", adding that in the past, results from tDCS studies have failed to be replicated.
What appears to be going on here is that there could be real results - the tDCS did see an improvement in the test subjects' flight simulation skills when compared to the control group, so the system could actual improve an individual's ability to learn. But that's a very, very different thing from being able to instantly transfer knowledge or skills from one person to another.
Yep, learning skills is still hard, but here are a few tips for how to make it easier, the old-fashioned, science-backed way.