Accelerated learning and skill development

Who doesn’t want to be like Neo in the The Matrix, where he lies down for a training session wakes up and declares, “I know Kung Fu,” While we may have to wait a while for new skills to be uploaded to our brains, there are near-term technologies that can help us accelerate learning.

A neurofeedback approach, initially pioneered through DARPA, sought to understand and replicate the brain patterns of experts. It turns out that expert brains look quite different from novices when performing a task. This is because the brain is always seeking efficiency and the lowest expenditure of energy on any particular task. It’s also one of the reasons that it's so hard to kick bad habits! When a novice is learning a task, their brain is engaged while they learn to put the particular skill combinations together and execute them. In contrast, the expert brain has mastered the task and needs minor activations to keep the correct pattern running. At DARPA, in work with expert marksmen, it was demonstrated that they could enter their expert state just prior to taking a perfect or near perfect shot. Knowing that, electroencephalography (EEG) based feedback could be used in real time to direct novices’ brain states to make their brains look MORE like experts. As crazy as it sounds, this training technique enabled the novices to greatly accelerate their performance and reduce the time needed for mastery.

The DARPA work extended to show that stimulating either the brain or peripheral nervous system during task acquisition could also enhance learning. In one case, transcranial direct current stimulation was applied to the brain during a threat detection task, which was successful in enhancing perceptual tasks and increasing reaction time. A few years later, DARPA’s Targeted Neuroplasticity Training program directly addressed the use of stimulation for training. Cranial nerves were targeted, particularly the vagus nerve. This approach was also effective and resulted in enhancements in language learning as well as other cognitive skills.

With the advances in neuromodulation these devices are ready for prime time! Many startups are capitalizing on both the neurofeedback and brain stimulation approaches to launch new learning enhancement products. Can Neo’s KungFu training be far behind?