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1/4/2002
12:34 PM
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Put On Your Thinking Cap

The year is 2006. You're in the office trying to make a tough decision. You need to think objectively, so you reach into your desk and pull out a thinking cap, a heavily wired beanie with a long electrical cord. Fitting the cap carefully on top of your head, you lean back and plug it into the wall. And in a flash, you've decided what to do--it's so clear! Why didn't you think of it sooner?

World-renowned physicist Allan Snyder is working toward that scenario. Known for his work in optics and telecommunications, Snyder now heads the Centre for the Mind, a joint venture between the Australian National University (where he's also a professor) and the University of Sydney. Snyder and his colleagues are investigating what he calls "mind physics"--ways to use technology to make the brain work more efficiently and to expand creativity.

The inspiration for the project came from studying the brain functions of a severely autistic girl. A savant, similar to Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rain Man, she could barely communicate with other people, yet was able to draw incredibly accurate pictures of the world around her. Snyder theorized that some of the damaged parts of her brain were the areas that let healthy people see the world subjectively. So he began trying to simulate that condition in another person.

"We located the area of the brain that's damaged in a savant and switched it off [in a healthy mind] with magnets," Snyder explains. By turning off the part of the brain that supports subjectivity, "we have been able to enhance objectivity," he says. Test subjects are temporarily able to draw pictures far more accurately than they normally can, he says. Ultimately, the research could lead to more ways to make workers smarter, bosses fairer, and decisions easier to make. Says Snyder, "We can create more objective people."

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