Can Electricity Improve Your Memory? A Shocking Finding

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Originally posted on October 9, 2014.

Have you ever just met someone, learned his name, and immediately forgotten it? This happens all of the time. People try all sorts of tricks to remember names, driving routes, or the location of your favorite Hong Kong noodle house. But we might be looking in the wrong spot. All we need is a healthy dose of electricity.

In a brilliant study, a group of Northwestern University researchers recruited volunteers and had them undergo a stimulating treatment. Each day for five days, the volunteers had a part of their brain stimulated using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The brain stimulation sessions lasted 20 minutes and targeted the hippocampus, which aids memory. To have a basis of comparison, the same volunteers also completed a week of sessions in which they did not receive brain stimulation. The trick was that the volunteers didn’t know when their brains had been zapped and when they hadn’t.

Did the brain zapping improve memory? It did. The brain stimulation also improved how well the hippocampus “talked” to other nearby brain regions, an effect called functional connectivity. My favorite finding was that the brain stimulation effects persisted 24 hours after the volunteers underwent the treatment. Stimulate now, remember better later. 

What does this mean? Should we forgo other memory strategies and instead buy a brain stimulation machine? I think not. These findings simply shed light on how the mind works and new ways we can improve how it functions.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”