The expression “put on your thinking cap” was first used in 1847 according to Merriam-Webster, referring to “a state or mood in which one thinks.” The results of recent military testing by the 711 Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, however, indicate that literal “thinking caps” may be on the wearable health tech horizon.

Military interest in rapid information processing from multiple sources stems from “high-level multitasking operations” in which human operators are overwhelmed by presented data. In the future, robotics and artificial intelligence may take over some or all of this type of role, but for now we have to rely on humans to do the job. The military wants to equip operators with technology to increase their information throughput capacity.

The Wright-Patterson AFB researchers studied the use of external brain stimulation targeting a specific part of the cortex. They used transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involves anode patches placed on the scalp located over the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and cathode patches on the right shoulder. Initial studies showed that placing both patches on the scalp caused “confounding,” which defeats the purpose. Having both anodes and cathodes in one headpiece would be neater, but using a separate component and location for the cathodes obviates the problem.

Twenty subjects in the testing (16 men and 4 women) were randomly assigned to active or sham tDCS units. The group with active tDCS performed with 30 percent higher capacity on multitasking throughput tests than the control group with sham tDCS. The test findings are positive evidence that tDCS can “augment and enhance multitasking capability in a human operator.” The next step for the researchers is to determine how long tDCS enhancement works. If enhancement is a matter of minutes that wouldn’t be practical. A provisional version of the full study can be found here.

From the military research, it isn’t hard to imagine future thinking caps that can be used as study aids, gaming accessories, or general-purpose mental performance boosters. The technology is already available in consumer products such as the Thync. which aims to help people concentrate or relax depending on the regions of the brain receive stimulation.