When you are working or studying, what do you have in the background? Maybe a podcast, some music, or maybe complete silence? Evidence suggests that some types of music can help or really get in the way our attempts to learn. But there may be a better way in the future.
A new study that reviews past research suggests that random, artificially generated noise can help the brain learn better.
How so? It is considered to be random noise manuals learning by increasing the brain’s plasticity, or ability to take in new information – essentially helping the brain form new pathways and connections.
In particular, we are talking here about a relatively new technique called transcranial random noise stimulationor tRNS, not some carefully curated relaxation playlist.
tRNS involves placing electrodes on a person’s scalp and passing weak electrical currents through certain parts of the brain.
“The impact on learning is promising,” says neurologist Onno van der Gruen, from Edith Cowen University in Australia. “It can speed up learning and help people with neurological conditions.”
“So, people with learning disabilities [could] use it to increase learning speed, for example. It has also been tested in people with visual deficits, such as after stroke and traumatic brain injury.’
The newly published paper does not involve any new research, but summarizes many previous studies on tRNS. In general, stimulating the brain while studying can improve learning and also help with attention after treatment.
Based on past research, tRNS may have two effects: an “acute” effect, where learning is improved during tRNS administration, and a longer-term, modulatory effect, where cognitive abilities may be improved in the future, even after tRNS has stopped.
Studies have shown that tRNA can enhance visual perceptionwill help us learn new information more efficientlyand improve our ability to focus, researchers report. It is useful in areas where the brain may be damaged or is recovering from damage.
However, the review also notes that tRNS is not a tool that works in all situations; it cannot continue to align our brain indefinitely.
In some scenarios and in some age groups, the use of electrical noise does not seem to work to affect the brain at all.
“There is case study where they tried to improve the mathematical abilities of a supermathematician.” says van der Gruen. “With him, it hasn’t had a big impact on his performance, probably because he’s already a top performer in the field.”
“But it can be used when you’re learning something new.”
Despite all these past experiments, the exact mechanisms at work in the brain during tRNAs remain unclear.
It’s thought that noise may help some neurons stay better in sync, or that it may affect levels of a key neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — although no one is sure yet.
It is clear from this research review that this random noise stimulation can have some positive effects in terms of learning, at least for a while in some people. This means that there is a lot of potential in terms of future research.
Another advantage of tRNS is that it does not necessarily require a complex laboratory setup to operate. Researchers say that in the future it will be possible to develop kits that people can use by themselves without assistance.
Eventually, it might even replace the soundtrack to your workday.
“The concept is relatively simple,” says van der Gruen. “It’s like a battery: the current goes from positive to negative, but it also goes through the head.”
“We’re working on a study where we send equipment to people and they apply everything on their own remotely. So, in that respect, it’s pretty easy to use.”
The study was published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.