Last week, we had a look at Seenapse, a search engine for inspiration and conceptual connections. And we’re continuing our investigation into technology that helps your thinking. This time, we’ve got an interview with Balder Onarheim, co-founder of Plato – a neuro-headset that helps to put your brain in the right state for creative thinking. We’ve previously featured Balder here on Open for Ideas, when we posted his TEDx talk about techniques to improve your creative thinking. Now here’s how to improve your thinking digitally.

What led to the development of the Plato device?

We started building a creativity program – a cognitive one – where we combine my practical approaches to creativity with biological ones and found out that by increasing people’s understanding of their own neurocognitive functions you can actually make them more creative. So the more you understand about the creative functioning in your brain, the more consciously you can use them – and therefore be more creative.

The more you understand about the creative functions in your brain, the more consciously you can use them

Since 2011 we’ve been keeping an eye on and playing around with tDCS (ed. that’s transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, if you want to know the full term. It’s where you apply small electrical currents to the scalp to manipulate electrical flow in the brain). There was this really interesting – but not completely clear – study back in 2011 from some researchers in Australia where they could improve people’s ability to do insight problem solving. Of course, that’s a very long discussion to what extent insight problem solving is the same as creativity – but they have a couple of things in common, at least, cognitively.

In this specific experiment, they used the 9 dot problem (that I also talk about in the TED talk) and normally about 10% of the population can solve that in about 10 minutes. But in this study, they could get 40% of the participants to solve it in the same timeframe by giving them tDCS. So what we started to work with was whether that could actually be a tool people can use rather than just an academic experiment. So we’ve actually been sitting on the concept for a couple of years. But as you know with tDCS, it’s conceptually so far out to most people that we’ve actually been waiting for the right time to come – because we simply didn’t think any professional back in 2011 would even consider putting an electrical stimulator on their heads. But then there’s been a big increase in the last 2 to 3 years in DIY and semi-professional – and now some quite good consumer tDCS devices. So in August last summer, we decided to actually launch a company and start producing the idea.

Could you explain how the device works and what it does to the brain?

Humans have a 10,000 year old tradition of manipulating our brains

Humans have a 10,000-year-old tradition of manipulating our brains. We’ve been smoking things, drinking things – a lot of us are taking chemical things like pain-killers – so modulating the brain is not a new thing. For a long time, we’ve been doing this through our body. So we put something into our body and it has a chemical reaction in your brain that changes our behaviour or our way of thinking in some way.

This new wave of products are – instead of changing the chemical balances in your brain through chemicals – changing the electrical signals in your brain through electricity. There are a lot of different ways of doing it. The studies for putting electricity into the brain are almost 2,000 years old – when they started using electrical eels to give people shock against migraines. So it’s not a new idea. What happened over the last few years is the scientific research into how putting electricity into the brain, simulating the same electricity that the brain has naturally, can actually be controlled sufficiently enough to give a predictable cognitive effect.


It seems to have two modes for divergent thinking and convergent thinking. What is it that it does differently between the two modes?

The tricky thing about creativity in general when it comes to the brain is it’s such a distributed concept. So, more or less, the whole brain is involved in creative thoughts. And making the distinction between divergent and convergent thinking has made it easier for people to understand, when they are faced with a certain task, which type of thinking do I like right now? And I think most people can relate the idea of opening up your mind and get a free flow of information, getting new thoughts, getting crazy ideas versus the other when you are selecting, filtering, making decisions, concentrating, trying to move away noise.

Everyone is creative but it’s more a question of how well trained those skills are

What we’ve seen in our studies, in classical brain imaging studies and also in a lot of other studies where they’re looking at the same things is there are certain areas in the brain that highly successful creatives – people who are really good at solving the different tasks we throw at them – have a different balance in certain areas of the brain compared to regular people or ‘less-creative’ individuals. I hate using that term but that’s how it’s used in academia. They are less practiced creatives. I think that’s the better way of saying it. Everyone is creative but it’s more a question of how well trained those skills are.

To put it very simply there are two large areas of the brain that we’re interested in. One is the frontal, which is basically the left and right side of the frontal lobe. That does most of our cognitive processing. So whenever you make an active cognitive thought, that’s the center where that is calculated. So that’s one area that we’re focusing on. And the other one is an area of the brain normally called the default network. Which is more or less the opposite. That’s the back side of the head – the top back of our heads – the technical term is the precuneus. And what we’ve seen is, in people who are less trained in being creative, there is a misbalance between the the precuneus area and the frontal. Meaning that, if you really focus on a task, you get more activity in the frontal and that will limit the activity of the precuneus.

The precuneus is an area we use for spontaneous thoughts – when all kinds of weird random stuff goes on in our brain. For instance, it’s the area that’s involved in dreaming and mind-wandering. And when concentrating, normally we shut off that area because we don’t think we need that type of spontaneous information while we’re really focused.

So when people are working on a task they normally shut that off. While high creative performers and people who are really trained creatives, they have the opposite. So when they really concentrate on a task, they actually get more activity in that part of the brain.

The main thing Plato does depends on whether you want to come up with new things or focus on the information you already have available. We basically either synchronise or desynchronise the balance between the frontal – where you are consciously cognitively processing – and the default network with the precuneus – where we do the random spontaneous thoughts.

Does this device help the people who don’t express their creativity as often or does it still have an effect on the practiced creatives?

This is about the ability to switch on and off functions

It definitely has an effect on practiced creatives because all of this is about the ability to switch on and off functions. So I think every practiced creative in the world knows the feeling of being asked to solve something or given a task – you know, you have to have a brief ready by tomorrow – and then the brain is not there. So even although you know exactly how you would like your brain to function, it just doesn’t follow you in the moment.

We have all of our personal methods – some go for runs, some have tinker toys, some have very strategic creative methods, some go and take a shower – we all have procrastination techniques that we have experienced that will get us into that mindset faster. And what the headset we’re developing – Plato – is trying to achieve is getting directly into that mindset by pressing a button rather than having to wait for it to arrive.

At the moment it arrives as a headset with pads that touch the scalp and it pairs with a smartphone?

It’s a headset with three active electrodes, meaning that they are programmable to send electricity into the brain. And when I say electricity, it’s extremely weak currents – you can barely feel something’s going on in the skin. And it’s trying to, sort of, resemble the electricity that’s naturally in the brain. So it’s just adding a little bit more or deducting a little bit from the ongoing natural processes. It’s connected to a smartphone and on the phone you can pick between whether you want your brain to go into divergent or convergent thought.

The good thing about it is that currently, we’ve got three electrodes, in future versions, we’ll add more electrodes so we can make more elaborate programmes and also more individual programmes. So we’re basically thinking about it as different kinds of algorithms you can run.

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At the moment it’s a device that writes a state to the brain. Are there any plans to read as well as write, so that it could record a moment of flow and then play that back to you?

Yeah, exactly. That’s the next level of devices. We’re already working on our version of this. I normally try to avoid saying ‘reading’ because there have been some really weird articles where journalists are saying that now people have found a way to upload information or write information into the brain. Technically, what we do is make it easier for the brain to read certain states through stimulation.

And the problem with the current application of the technique, including our own, is it is based on an averaging. So we’ve seen across a lot of studies on average most people’s brains are behaving in a certain way. And we try to reproduce that average into a given brain which is, of course, not an average brain. No one has an average brain! So what you just mentioned – this idea of having what we call adaptive tDCS or adaptive neurostimulation – where, instead of taking an average of other people’s brains, it tries to read your brain when you have an optimal experience and then store how the electrical currents in the brain behaved while you were in a flow state – or you had a really good Monday morning. Then at a later point in time you can ask the device to try to reestablish the same electrical stimuli in your brain that you had in that specific moment.

So the feeling of being a father for the first time or the feeling of having a great meal. All these sensations are, in theory, reproducible.

You just don’t want anyone to hack into it so you’re left with the permanent feeling of having forgotten your trousers?

Hahahahaha! Safety is actually an interesting thing about this. Current research into the domain shows that you can use it for up to 30 minutes, up to 5 days a week. It’s more like a kick-starter. If you’re stuck in a situation and don’t have the right mindset, you can put it on, select the type of mindset you want and then it will help you for the next 30 minutes to get there. And depending on how trained you are, your brain might be able to keep the momentum going as soon as it has been started.

So the hacking part gets more interesting to me with the more futuristic idea where I would walk around with the device on constantly and then it will monitor and correct my electrical impulses, for example, to keep me happy. When we get to that area, the safety aspects become way more tricky.

The American military has been using tDCS to speed up sniper training. This ability to accelerate the learning of motor skills – for learning guitar scales or picking up dance moves – is that something that you’ll be able to look at as well?

Definitely. The sniper training is more about noise reduction – turning off background noise. The one that I find most interesting, in terms of practicing scales, is the one that was done with pilots.

They scanned the brains of super-experts and they looked at how the electrical signals were when they were flying. And then they reproduced the same electrical impulses in the brains of people who were learning to fly. That could decrease the training time. And this is actually one of the examples where, I think it was the Independent in the UK (ed – it was the Telegraph) who wrote an article entitled ‘researchers have found the way to upload information to the brain’. Of course, that’s not what was happening, but when you talk about skills such as – you just mentioned guitar playing – if I could reproduce Jimi Hendrix’s electrical signals in my brain while I was trying to do one of his solos, that’s a very intriguing thought.

Am I right in thinking that depression is one thing that can also be treated with tDCS?

The interesting parts about all these applications is the single-session effect – which varies largely from person to person – and the training effect – so if you keep using this over time then your brain will learn to do it itself. If you keep taking a drug, your brain will be numbed. If you keep using electrical stimuli, then your brain actually gets better at doing it itself because it’s practiced that way of using the electrical patterns.

If you keep using this over time then your brain will learn to do it itself

So the interesting thing about the studies that have been done with both depression and ADHD is you might actually be able to train your way out of it. Meaning, that instead of keeping taking Adderall or Ritalin the rest of your life if you have ADHD, you can actually train yourself for a year and then you’re rid of the drugs.

So it is encouraging your brain to be rewired in a different way?

Yeah. Exactly. So you combine it with cognitive training – as you give training objects you then apply electricity as well. So the effect you get off the training is better. That’s also what they’ve been testing on stroke patients’ rehabilitation.

At the moment Plato is in early test release state. When will it be taken to market? How soon can I get one?

That’s a really good question! We’ve launched a limited sale pioneer programme where we’ve distributed devices to some users who are now starting to use it at home. There’s more product testing and basic feedback. Then, in the spring, we’re launching a Beta programme where people can get the device which is still a testing device and contribute by testing it and feeding data back to us.

We have a huge crowd-science programme upcoming, where we’ll use the data collected from the users to improve the product for all the users through the digital platform. So, in the spring, we will launch a new round of test-products on a bigger scale.

What would you want people to do at the moment to get involved?

Sign up for being a tester or getting a launch notification

Of course, sign up for being a tester or getting a launch notification from us. The only thing that we always make sure to say – because a lot of the other companies on the marketplace don’t focus on this – it’s really important to emphasise that this is a new technology and no one really has full control of predicting the exact effects yet. We always to try to say at the end of things that it’s under development and it might turn out that it’s unpredictable – meaning that you get a device and you test 10 programmes and you keep using the 2 that make sense for you. So just to emphasise that it’s in-progress work, we haven’t solved it yet and from my point of view, no one else has.

If you’re interested in finding our more, go and have a look at the Plato site and sign up to their newsletter – or even offer to be a beta tester. BirssPersonal CreativityADHD,Balder Onarheim,brain,creativity,depression,frontal lobe,neuroscience,plato,precuneus,tDCS
Last week, we had a look at Seenapse, a search engine for inspiration and conceptual connections. And we’re continuing our investigation into technology that helps your thinking. This time, we’ve got an interview with Balder Onarheim, co-founder of Plato - a neuro-headset that helps to put your brain in...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.