When Peter Hancock says he’s going to put on his thinking cap, he’s not using figurative language. Hancock, 32, has fashioned a bona fide example. “It is a modified heating pad,” he explains, “but there’s more to it than that. There’s a variety of instruments to monitor temperature on the back.”
An assistant professor of safety science and human factors at the University of Southern California, Hancock says that scientists have known that heating a person’s body one degree centigrade causes him to perform faster. But at the same time this temperature rise causes him to make more errors. Hancock’s challenge, therefore, was to design a cap that would turn a person into a “hothead” without causing heat stress in the body.
Apparently Hancock’s head-dress works. When he tested subjects for reaction time, visual-search ability, time estimation and simple mathematics, people with the hat on did 5 to 15 percent better than a control group not wearing the hat. (Heating the head only½ degree centigrade seemed to make people react faster, but their error rate also went up.)
The son of a school principal, Hancock was born in Berkeley, near Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon. He moved to the U.S. seven years ago and received a Ph.D. in motor performance, an applied psychology degree, from the University of Illinois at Champaign in 1983. He and wife Frances, a community college lecturer, have a daughter, Susan, 5. His USC office is laden with motorcycle helmets, including numbered ones from fatal bike accidents. Hancock takes pride that research at USC’s Safety Science and Human Factors Department has vastly improved helmet safety and thereby saved lives.
Hancock, who doesn’t plan to market his clever invention, entreats other scientists to test the thinking cap. “There’s a lot of benefit to having similar results coming out of different laboratories,” he says. But, he emphasizes, this is an experimental procedure. “It won’t do you any good to just heat your head and expect to get smarter,” he warns. “And if you increase the temperature too fast, it could cause a severe headache. So don’t try this technology yourself. Don’t even think about it.”