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The secret to learning is more low-tech than you think

From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector. Read all of our WIRED Health coverage here.

Vincent Walsh wants to zap your brain. He's at the forefront of neuroscientific research, using deep brain stimulation to treat depression.

Walsh, professor of human brain research at UCL, has been "designing new paradigms for brain stimulation" for twenty years. He's experimenting with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive form of neurostimulation. But he also thinks we should "draw back from the hype" around brain stimulation.

"We are carrying around with us the tools for learning," he told the audience at WIRED Health. "And we're missing low-tech opportunities to learn."

Studies on brain stimulation have claimed to improve mathematical ability, symptoms of autism, ADHD, schizophrenia, reading abilities and attention. Recent studies have also claimed that brain stimulation can help pilots land planes better, cause endurance cyclists to perform better and even improve the "frequency of orgasms" (from 2.5 a week to 3.8 orgasms a week, apparently).

But many of these studies haven't been replicated. And when it comes to learning, which Walsh has researched extensively, he thinks we're confusing science and technology. 

"We already understand the science of memory – we know how to learn, we know how to motivate people. If you want to learn something you have to make an effort, you have to make that effort repeatedly, and you have to have some downtime, which is why sleep is so important."

So if we want to learn, should we apply electrodes to the brain? Walsh says no. "We should turn to 100 years of memory research and give people things to practice," he said. "With a lot of these things, it's not a brain stimulation problem – it's a behavioural problem." 

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