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Story Last modified at 10:23 a.m. on Thursday, March 17, 2011

Give my math skills a jump start, please
Moutain Echos

By Frank E. Baker

I was intrigued by a "Popular Science" magazine article recently that described a new way to improve our math skills. Called transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS, the treatment involves passing a mild electric current through the skull into the brain's parietal lobe, where numbers are processed.


The article says that with just 15 minutes of a barely perceptible electric current passed through the brain, scientists at the University of Oxford have succeeded in improving a person's math abilities with an effect lasting as long as six months.

According to the article, patients were asked to learn new symbols to represent numbers. Then, while they were on TDCS, they attempted to organize the numbers. Participants whose brains were being stimulated demonstrated an improved ability to perform the task. When tested again six months later, they retained their higher performance level.

Scientists conducting the experiments said the current helps the affected nerves to fire more quickly, making it easier to learn information.

Back when I was in high school and dreamed about becoming an astronomer or astrophysicist, I could have really used this technology. Algebra and geometry were the Mt. Everest of my education. People who conquered trigonometry, calculus, differential equations and other advanced mathematics were like gods to me.

If the parietal lobe is the key part of the brain where numbers are processed, mine must be the size of a paramecium, if I have such a lobe at all. Straight math was never that difficult, but when I was introduced to letters and symbols and equations that represented numbers, I was like a Wall Street investment banker placed in the middle of Australia's Outback. Every teacher I had went too fast for me. By the time I came close to mastering a way to solve a problem, they were moving on to the next set of problems.

For the balance of my education I had to masterfully navigate around anything that involved math, and I refined that maneuvering into an art form as I began my career in journalism. Strangely enough, my journalism degree took me into Alaska's oil and gas industry, and I spent the better part of three decades working closely with engineers and scientists who, out of design and necessity, were highly skilled in math. Much of my writing and reporting involved highly technical subjects.

It wasn't so bad, however, because I'm a male who doesn't mind asking for directions. I've never minded asking dumb questions. If I needed a conversion for volume or some other kind of calculation, I'd just ask any one of a number of engineers that I had befriended. But it would really have been great to have my brain stimulated with TDCS so that I felt more aligned with my technical friends and colleagues.

The article says the next trials will involve patients who have lower-than-average number processing skills, and Oxford scientists hope to one day develop a device to deliver TDCS. While it may be some time before such brain-zapping is widely administered, this treatment could help the significant portion of the population (nearly 20 percent) with moderate to severe math disability, and possibly those with difficulty in other subjects as well.

I would like to volunteer for Oxford's next trials, but I'm afraid that my brain, which consistently provides startlingly wrong answers to mathematical problems, would damage their instruments. My deepest fear is that they would discover that instead of a parietal lobe, I have some kind of amorphous mass with neurons that emit weak, confusing signals. The medical knowledge gleaned, however, in thoroughly examining a completely dysfunctional parietal lobe like mine might greatly assist scientists in advancing their research.

Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and resident of Eagle River. His books of poetry are available at the Book Shelf.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, March 17, 2011.