Could a 'thinking cap' make me a genius?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. And guess who's with me? That would be Mr. Charles W. Chuck Bryant who based on his headwear today, his headwear choice today, apparently has joined the Cuban Revolution.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Is that correct, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Its Friday hat day, so I'm doing my best Fidel Castro.

Josh Clark: Yeah, viva che.

Chuck Bryant: It's a combat cap. You like it?

Josh Clark: It is. It's very cool. It's pretty cool, Chuck. You want to know something cooler?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Actually, I don't know if cool is the right word. Maybe horrific is a better word.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: There's a study, conducted here in the states. And of course you know the United States, like most other countries has a long history of well-meaning, but really misplaced medical experiments or psychological experiments.

Chuck Bryant: Right, sure, like giving LSD to unsuspecting Americans, which we've talked about.

Josh Clark: Right, exactly. This one was a little different. This one involved separating twins who were up for adoption at birth, in the State of New York. And there were, I think, 13 sets of twins in one set of triplets. And they were all separated.

Chuck Bryant: That's sad.

Josh Clark: Through this one adoption agency, as part of a study of nature versus nurture.

Chuck Bryant: Oh yeah.

Josh Clark: So the only thing the adopting parents knew was that their kid was part of an ongoing child psychology study.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And so these researchers were allowed access to these kids over their lifetimes. And then it went from the 60s to, I think, 1980. And the guy who was running the show, his name was Peter Neubauer, right. He was a child psychologist. He, apparently, realized that if he were to publish this study, basically he'd be lynched, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: That by the time 1980 rolled around, people didn't think too highly of separating twins. The ethics of experimentation had changed enough.

Chuck Bryant: Not based on the results, just based on the fact that he did this.

Josh Clark: Yeah, right. So basically what he did was take all of the research. He had the study. It was ready to be published. And he sealed it and it cannot be opened until 2066.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: And it's sitting in the archives at Yale University. I imagine 2066, he imagined he'd be long dead by then.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So in 2066, we're going to find out a lot about nature versus nurture.

Chuck Bryant: I will be long dead, but you might.

Josh Clark: I'm supposed to make it to 2041, as you know.

Chuck Bryant: That's what your death clock said?

Josh Clark: The death clock says so. I don't think so. I'll be long dead, too.

Chuck Bryant: My Vegas odds are against that.

Josh Clark: So okay. So Chuck, that's an example of a really terrible experiment.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Right?

Chuck Bryant: For sure.

Josh Clark: Have you heard of savants, autistic savants?

Chuck Bryant: I have, indeed.

Josh Clark: You have. Okay. They actually provide a much less horrible natural experiment, perfect natural experiment to study the brain.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: You want to talk about savants for a second because I'm going to explain later how they make this perfect experiment.

Chuck Bryant: Sure Josh. Autistic savants are people who are mentally deficient in some areas, but excel in others. A lot of times - I know there's a kid that plays a piano. Have you seen him, the jazz trio?

Josh Clark: I have not.

Chuck Bryant: He's 15 or so now. And when he first started playing, he was really young and very advanced, musically. And he's autistic savant, so that's one good example.

Josh Clark: Music comes out a lot in savantism. There's a guy named Blind Tom. He was this African American guy at the turn of the last century.

Chuck Bryant: Not hippy Rob.

Josh Clark: Not hippy Rob, no, blind Tom. And he was severely autistic. And he could play pretty much any piece of music that he heard once on the piano.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting. Well autistic savant is different than autism though, aren't those two?

Josh Clark: Sure, not e verybody who is a savant is autistic and not everybody who's autistic is a savant.

Chuck Bryant: Correct.

Josh Clark: So there is - yes, that's a good point. There is a very, I guess a subgroup called autistic savants. And perhaps the most famous savant is a guy named Ken Peek.

Chuck Bryant: Rain man?

Josh Clark: Rain man, that's exactly right.

Chuck Bryant: Is that what they called him?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Oh really?

Josh Clark: Yeah. He's the real rain man is what they call him.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, I thought I just made that up.

Josh Clark: No, you were dead on, Chuck. You have an amazing intuition.

Chuck Bryant: Maybe I'm a savant.

Josh Clark: Maybe. I don't think so, but maybe.

Chuck Bryant: I'm terrible at math, so I doubt it.

Josh Clark: Yeah, that comes into play, too, as well. But Ken Peek is this guy who the guy who wrote Rain Man, Barry Morrow, met, in 1984. And in 1988, the movie came out. So he was very much based on Ken Peek.

Chuck Bryant: Did not know that.

Josh Clark: Yeah. If you tell him your birthday, your birth date, he'll tell you what day of the week you were born on.

Chuck Bryant: Oh cool.

Josh Clark: He apparently has read 12,000 books around that. He started reading and memorizing things at 14 months.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: But he has severe brain damage, developmental brain damage.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: So he can't button his own shirt.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: He can't care for himself. Luckily, he's got a really good dad who cares for him.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: But the cool thing about this story is after Barry Morrow won an Oscar, he gave it to Ken Peek.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, did he write the screenplay?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Oh.

Josh Clark: So Ken Peek carries it around everywhere he goes.

Chuck Bryant: I would too.

Josh Clark: Isn't that cool?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's awesome.

Josh Clark: All right. So the reason why savants, and there have been some really spectacular ones throughout the ages, provide such a great natural experiment for us to investigate the brain is because most of them, they almost exclusively have damage to the left hemisphere of the brain.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And just the very fact that they can excel in math, but can't button their own shirts, it provides this kind of certain framework to compare the rest of our brains to.

Chuck Bryant: Right, right.

Josh Clark: It's an excellent comparison, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. And the left side is more about detail, correct, and the right side is more about the big picture.

Josh Clark: You love the lateralization of brain function, don't you?

Chuck Bryant: I do. Well I like the brain, period, because it's still so mysterious. It's amazing how little we know, still, about the brain.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it's amazing and disconcerting.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, at the same time.

Josh Clark: I predict that the next 50 years are going to see tremendous advances in our understanding of the brain, in part because of the study of savants, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So yeah, you were talking about the lateralization of brain function. Yeah, you were right. Left is the detail oriented side.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And right sees the big picture, right?

Chuck Bryant: Mm-hmm.

Josh Clark: And so there's some people who are studying savants. And like I said, one of the reasons why they are interesting is because almost all of them have damage in one form or another to the left side of the brain.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And even more suspicious is you can maybe get in a car wreck or have a stroke. And if the left side is impaired, people have been known to basically come out of it a savant.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And sometimes autistic savant.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: Right. So one of the people that I'd like to talk about today, who's studying savants, is Dr. Alan Snyder.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, Shnyder, as I like to call him.

Josh Clark: He is an expat American who runs the Center for the Mind. It's the British spelling of center, in Sydney, Australia.

Chuck Bryant: Eccentric.

Josh Clark: And he's a very eccentric person.

Chuck Bryant: It sounds like it.

Josh Clark: He really is. But he's been studying savants for years. And he has come up with a theory about mindsets. And it's based on the lateralization of brain function. Take it, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: I love that. I love that. Yeah, the mindset, basically, hits the areas that mindsets are created. They're personal, basically definitions on your experience. So if you see a bear in the woods, well that's a little less common. Lets' say a dog in your driveway; you'll note things about the dog that he's furry, that he has a tail that he walks on four legs, that kind of thing. And your brain kind of stores that away, so next time you don't see a dog, you think oh my gosh; what is that creature walking towards me.

Josh Clark: What is that? I've never seen one of those before.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, and he calls these mindsets.

Josh Clark: Right. So Chuck, we're basically assaulted with stimuli at all times.

Chuck Bryant: All the time.

Josh Clark: Raw data, basically.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: From the humming of a fluorescent light to conversations that we overhear in restaurants, that kind of thing.

Chuck Bryant: Colors, actions, tastes, smells.

Josh Clark: Yeah. We're constantly assaulted with sensory input, right. We have this thing called latent inhibition.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which is a brain process they're still, again, trying to get a handle on. But latent inhibition is basically the process by which we filter out stuff we already know.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So if we can identify, so we're not constantly focused on the buzzing of a fluorescent light.

Chuck Bryant

Exactly, or hearing all the voices in a restaurant. Obviously that would be maddening.

Josh Clark: Right. And actually, as a side note, schizophrenics have very low latent inhibition.

Chuck Bryant: Indeed.

Josh Clark: So they're constantly assaulted with all of this stuff.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: They also have the added horrible side effect of attaching meaning to these snippets of conversation, right. So say specifically you're hearing voices and you're not able to externalize or internalize, meaning you can't tell the voices are coming from your head, and you're attaching meaning to them, that's schizophrenia.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That's horrible.

Josh Clark: So it's Snyder's belief and I'm pretty sure the medical establishment at large that we're getting all of this raw data. It's being accepted into our right hemisphere, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Which sees the big picture? And it sends it over to the left hemisphere, which processes it into details which we hang on to. This interplay between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere creates those mindsets you were talking about, right?

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: Which, like you said, is how we can see a dog and come to understand what a dog is and then later on, when we see another dog, we just say oh, that's a dog.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Like we categorize things in packets, right?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: So we say all that to say this. If, supposedly, we have damage to the left side of the brain, the detail oriented brain, all we're doing is getting raw data and we're not able to create these mindsets.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: There's this wonderful article by a guy named Lawrence Osborne. It was in the New York Times in 2003, called, "Savant for a day." And he spent the day with Alan Snyder. The whole article is very long, but it's definitely worth reading. He chronicles his day with Alan Snyder. One of the things that Snyder mentions is that some of the savants that he studies when they come to see him a The Center for the Mind, they may have been there dozens of times, but they can get lost every single time just because of the change of shadows. It looks different. They're getting different input, right.

Chuck Bryant: That makes sense, sure.

Josh Clark: So they'll get lost because it doesn't look the same way it did that last time and they can't form mindsets saying this is the direction I'm going, right.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So since people with left hemisphere brain damage tend to be savants, right, or people who are savants have that condition, Snyder has actually come up with a theory that all of us are savants. If you get struck on the head and your left hemisphere is damaged, you could become a savant.

Chuck Bryant: Right. So we're all potential savants.

Josh Clark: Right, and basically the left side that helps create these mindsets that pays attention to these details and hangs on to them are keeping us from being savants.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Right?

Chuck Bryant: That's really interesting.

Josh Clark: So how do you investigate something like this?

Chuck Bryant: Well, he uses a process called transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Josh Clark: Yes, he does.

Chuck Bryant: We're going to call that TMS.

Josh Clark: Yes, much easier.

Chuck Bryant: For our purposes. TMS was originally designed, Josh, to examine brain functions during cranial surgery. And what it does is it focuses magnetic pulses to either suppress or enhance the electrical functions of the brain.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it depends on the frequency of the pulses, right?

Chuck Bryant: Absolutely. And we were talking privately and I thought it sounded very relaxing, as your brain was being massaged.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And I was disappointed because you said that you don't feel anything.

Josh Clark: You're not supposed to feel anything.

Chuck Bryant: It sounds very nice to me.

Josh Clark: It does, kind of. But I think you could probably get something like what you're describing at Brookstone maybe. So don't fear.

Chuck Bryant: That's where you should go.

Josh Clark: Sure.

Chuck Bryant: Sharper Image, perhaps.

Josh Clark: They're under.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, are they?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Anyway, Alan Snyder started using TMS because he found this curious little side effect of people that were getting tested with TMS had some cognitive malfunctions.

Josh Clark: Like speech impediments while this thing was trained on their brain, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right, but it also had some - if you put this on an average person, it had some pretty cool results.

Josh Clark: Yeah, this is what Snyder's been doing. This is his new experiment.

Chuck Bryant: Right. And it's very cool. 40 percent of the people, the normal folks, let's call them, that he exposed to TMS, they displayed artistic and quantitative abilities that they didn't seem to have before.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: So right on the money, it seems like it's actually tapping into a part of our brain that we have and we don't use, which sort of backs up his theory.

Josh Clark: Right. Some of the things he puts people through while he uses TMS on them, which apparently, it looks a lot like a shower cap. It has a bundle of magnetic wires in it.

Chuck Bryant: Right. A thinking cap, if you will.

Josh Clark: Yeah, which is kind of an inaccurate moniker?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: An unfortunate one the press has kind of put on it.

Chuck Bryant: Right. They had to label it.

Josh Clark: Right.

Chuck Bryant: Catchy.

Josh Clark: You've got to. You've got to get people to read, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Which is why we used it in the title of the article I wrote, right?

Chuck Bryant: Exactly. (Inaudible)

Josh Clark: So depending on where you put it on the skull, it's going to affect that very localized region of the brain.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So of course Snyder's interested in training this on the left hemisphere of the brain, and he's actually using a low frequency, so he's depressing the left brain's function. And reportedly, like you said, 40 percent of people are showing results. One of the things he likes to get people to do is draw animals. And apparently, with those 40 percent who show a reaction to TMS, their drawings tend to get better or more realistic, more lifelike. And Snyder's theory is that this drawing from memory is not based on the preconceived notions that you already have that would come from the left hemisphere of the brain. Curiously, he also has found that people, ordinary people we're talking about, can identify prime numbers from sight.

Chuck Bryant: I love that one.

Josh Clark: From the field.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah and words, proofreading, grammatical errors, all of a sudden, out of nowhere.

Josh Clark: So over the course of this TMS therapy or whatever, they're getting progressively better at these tasks.

Chuck Bryant: But it only lasts about an hour though. Is that correct ?

Josh Clark: Yes, and it may not happen at all. There's an argument out there that if you draw 14 cats in a row, they're going to get better.

Chuck Bryant: Right, true.

Josh Clark: That may or may not be true, but it is pretty interesting data that he's coming up with. I don't think arguments like that are really putting the kibosh on this investigation using TMS, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. I don't think so.

Josh Clark: Which, by the way, also, I understand you said it has just been approved by the FDA for use in treating depression.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, Josh. They studied 300 people that had clinical depression in Philadelphia. And they found out that people that underwent the TMS therapy were twice as likely to go into remission.

Josh Clark: That's awesome.

Chuck Bryant: And they're also now - this is just as of last week, I think, are studying asking for stroke victims to volunteer for studies with TMS.

Josh Clark: Apparently, with depression, if you train it on the frontal lobe, I believe and you put it on a high frequency, they've actually shown that it restructures the brain. Like your neurons are restructured. And of course, in the frontal lobe, that's where your ability to regulate mood is.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So that's just weird, but very hopeful.

Chuck Bryant: It is. It makes you wonder if this thing could be the key to making people smarter, curing brain disease.

Josh Clark: Sure, yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: So I guess the take away from this one is the next time you meet a savant of any kind and he or she tries to impress you with their mathematical or musical skills, you can think to yourself, I could do that, too, if I had left side brain damage.

Chuck Bryant: Sure, yeah. You're not so special.

Josh Clark: Exactly. So Chuck, that would be, "What's a thinking cap, and could it make me a genius?" The answer is no, not really. But that's what you would type in if you wanted to go to HowStuffWorks.com, right.

Chuck Bryant: Indeed.

Josh Clark: And I think you had something you wanted to say to everybody.

Chuck Bryant: Well, yeah, Josh, this is pretty exciting. Before we get to listener mail, we are launching a blog, not just you and I, but I believe six or seven blogs on the website.

Josh Clark: A whole mess of them.

Chuck Bryant: A whole mess of them. And they gave you and I, as you know, our own little blog, called Stuff You Should Know.

Josh Clark: Yes.

Chuck Bryant: Although the whole entire blog section is called Stuff You Should Know. Don't get confused.

Josh Clark: Yes, it is. I hadn't noticed that.

Chuck Bryant: They named it after us.

Josh Clark: I've got to pay more attention.

Chuck Bryant: So we would like our listeners to get active. This is a call out to our listeners to get on the blogs. We're going to be discussing all kinds of cool stuff that isn't long enough to make into a full episode. So shorter topics on there and we'll also be talking about the shows that we do every Tuesday and Thursday.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And actually we've picked up on a couple of listener mail suggestions.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: We've written on, so keep those ideas coming too because chuck and I can only do so much.

Chuck Bryant: Right. So go to the website and look for blogs. It should be pretty easy to find. We'll have a URL for you very shortly. And enjoy. Talk to each other, connect.

Josh Clark: That's great. Nicely done, Chuck!

Chuck Bryant: Thanks.

Josh Clark: Okay. So you know what this is, right?

Chuck Bryant: It's listener mail time.

Josh Clark: Yes, it is, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, it is. So Josh, this week we heard from a man named Jason Devoneer. Is that how you pronounce it? Do you know?

Josh Clark: I don't. I've never met him. We're e-mail pals. He works for HowStuffWorks up in Chicago.

Chuck Bryant: Okay. So this is an insider deal, but that's fine.

Josh Clark: Sure.

Chuck Bryant: Because Jason did write us. This is about the moon landing episode and whether or not it was faked. Jason is a three time space camper, which is kind of cool. I hope you ribbed him for that.

Josh Clark: I totally did.

Chuck Bryant: And full time nerd, self-professed. And he said he was excited to see a podcast about the moon landing. When you were talking about dust on the moon, you said in the photos, video dust appears to be clouding or kicked up more than dust would be on earth. This would occur because the particles are airborne longer due to the lack of gravity, 1/6 the gravity, by the way.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I know.

Chuck Bryant: What didn't fit was when you insinuated that to recreate this effect on the earth; it would require a vacuumized sound stage. Josh, apparently the air has nothing to do with it. On earth, the dust particles will rise and fall at the same rate, regardless of the presence of air in the room. The only effect air would have on a falling object is rod resistance, when you're dealing with something as small as tiny rocks that make up this dust, air resistance would be such a small factor, it would not be perceptible to the naked eye. So Jason, fully geeked out, set us straight. That's awesome.

Josh Clark: Yeah, thanks Jason.

Chuck Bryant: And on that note with the moon landing, we had a bunch of people write in about the Mythbusters episode where they tested out some of these theories. And they actually shot a beam of light, a laser, which I guess is a beam of light, and there are these reflectors that they left on the moon. And it bounced back and they saw this. So they pretty much proved, absolutely that we did land on the moon. And I don't have the list of everyone that wrote in telling us about that show. But it was a lot of folks.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I see you have it marked lots of listeners.

Chuck Bryant: Lots o listeners.

Josh Clark: Nicely done.

Chuck Bryant: Thank you.

Josh Clark: Well if you want to become Chuck's or my e-mail buddy, you can send us an e-mail about anything you like at StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.