Better Living Through Electrochemistry

Getting a battery-assisted brain upgrade during sniper training

Have you ever wanted to take a vacation from your own head?

You could do it easily enough with liberal applications of alcohol, weed or hallucinogens, but that’s not the kind of vacation I’m talking about. What if you could take a very specific vacation only from the stuff that makes it painful to be you: the sneering inner monologue that insists you’re not capable enough or smart enough or pretty enough or whatever hideous narrative rides you. Now that would be a vacation. You’d still be you, but you’d be able to navigate the world without the emotional baggage that now drags on your every decision. Can you imagine what that would feel like?

Late last year, I got the chance to find out, in the course of investigating a story (in this week’s New Scientist) about how researchers are using neurofeedback and electrical brain stimulation to accelerate learning. What I found was that electricity might be the most powerful drug I’ve ever used in my life.

It used to be just plain old chemistry that had neuroscientists gnawing their fingernails about the ethics of brain enhancement. As Adderall, Ritalin and other cognitive enhancing drugs gain widespread acceptance as tools to improve your everyday focus, even the stigma of obtaining them through less than legal channels appears to be disappearing. People will overlook a lot of moral gray areas in the quest to juice their brain power.

But until recently, you were out of luck if you wanted to do that without taking drugs that might be addictive, habit-forming or associated with unfortunate behavioural side effects. Over the past few years, however, it’s become increasingly clear that applying an electrical current to your head confers similar benefits. US military researchers have had great success using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)– in which they hook you up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery and let the current flow through your brain. After a few years of lab testing, they’ve found that they can more than double the rate at which people learn a wide range of tasks such as object recognition, maths skills, and marksmanship.

We don’t yet have a commercially available “thinking cap” but we will soon. So the research community has begun to ask: What are the ethics of battery-operated cognitive enhancement? Last week a group of Oxford University neuroscientists released a cautionary statement about the ethics of brain boosting, followed quickly by a report from the UK’s Royal Society that questioned the use of tDCS for military applications. Is brain boosting a fair addition to the cognitive enhancement arms race? Will it create a Morlock/Eloi-like social divide where the rich can afford to be smarter and leave everyone else behind? Will Tiger Moms force their lazy kids to strap on a zappity helmet during piano practice?

After trying it myself, I have different questions. To make you understand, I am going to tell you how it felt. The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.

The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at.

Then this happened:

The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.

It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can’t tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks.

It’s possibly the world’s biggest cliche that we’re our own worst enemies. In yoga, they tell you that you need to “learn to get out of your own way.” Part of getting out of your own way is making those voices go away, exhuming the person you really are under all the geologic layers of narrative and  crosstalk that are constantly chattering in your brain. I think eventually these voices just become background noise. We stop hearing them consciously, but believe me, we listen to them just the same.

Sometimes they’re anodyne distractors that tell us to look at the shiny thing or interrupt our focus to bleat that we forgot to buy milk. But most often their influence is destructive. They tell us in countless ways that we’re not good enough.

My brain without tDCS: All Dagobah and no Yoda

Me without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head; I’ve experienced something close to it during 2-hour Iyengar yoga classes, but the fragile peace in my head would be shattered almost the second I set foot outside the calm of the studio. I had certainly never experienced instant zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at.

There were no unpleasant side effects. The bewitching silence of the tDCS lasted, gradually diminishing over a period of about three days. The inevitable reintroduction of self-doubt and inattention to my mind bore heartbreaking similarities to the plot of Flowers for Algernon.

I hope you can sympathize with me when I tell you that the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.* I also started to have a lot of questions. Who was I apart from the angry little bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I’m too scared to try? And where did those voices come from? Some of them are personal history, like the caustically dismissive 7th grade science teacher who advised me to become a waitress. Some of them are societal, like the hateful ladymag voices that bully me every time I look in a mirror. Invisible narrative informs all my waking decisions in ways I can’t even keep track of.

What would a world look like in which we all wore little tDCS headbands that would keep us in a primed, confident state  free of all doubts and fears? Wouldn’t you wear the shit out of that cap? I certainly would. I’d wear one at all times and have two in my backpack ready in case something happened to the first one.

I think the ethical questions we should be asking about tDCS are much more subtle than the ones we’ve been asking about cognitive enhancement. Because how you define “cognitive enhancement” frames the debate about its ethics.

If you told me tDCS will allow to someone to study twice as fast for the bar exam, I might be a little leery because now I have visions of rich daddies paying for Junior’s thinking cap. Neuroscientists like Roy Hamilton have termed this kind of application “cosmetic neuroscience,” which implies a kind of “first world problem” frivolity.

But now think of a different application–could school-age girls use the zappy cap while studying math to drown out the voices that tell them they can’t do math because they’re girls? How many studies have found a link between invasive stereotypes and poor test performance?

And then, finally, the main question: what role does doubt and fear play in our lives if its eradication actually causes so many improvements? Do we make more ethical decisions when we listen to our inner voices of self-doubt or when we’re freed from them? If we all wore these caps, would the world be a better place?

And if tDCS headwear were to become widespread, will the same 20-minutes with a 2 milliamp current always deliver the same effects, or will you need to up your dose like you do with some other drugs?

Because, to steal a great point from a Gizmodo commenter, pretty soon, a 9-volt battery may no longer be enough.









* As you might expect after this kind of evangelizing, the first thing I did when I got back from California was check how I could DIY my own contraption. And as you might expect, after reading the article, the commenters, letter-writers, and denizens of this monster Reddit thread wanted to know the same thing.

I hereby shake off all liability for directing you to this page.  If you’re going to turn to unaccountable internet strangers for advice on the best way to send a current through your noodle, caveat lector and godspeed. I’m not involved. (and for fuck’s sake, just go enroll in a study at a nearby university)




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58 thoughts on “Better Living Through Electrochemistry

  1. Are you a better shot now,after days or weeks have gone by or is it truly “Flowers for Algernon” and your level of competence returned to previous levels?

  2. Erin: I suspect the answer is dose. There’s no “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” twitching or convulsing from 2 milliamps. Also, no memory loss.

    Ed: I wish I knew; haven’t had a chance to test the learning retention. I will say my Tetris scores have jumped.

  3. I wonder if WADA would consider this kind of brain doping to be cheating.

    I’m also curious about whether/how long the effects last. Maybe you should go back for another round.

  4. Sally, if bitter gnomes populate your mind, driving you to failure because you’re too scared to try, as you say above….well…I never knew it. You are fierce. I remember thinking that when you first showed up at class back in Baltimore. Fierce and funny. And I aspire.

  5. This has nothing to do with ethics. If it helps people study faster and more efficiently then it doesn’t matter how because the information is still in one’s head. As for this whole rich vs. poor thing, the same could be said about computers. So where does a poor person go if he or she needs to use a computer? THE LIBRARY. Just have this available in local libraries and we’re all set, plus it would also boost library attendance to help maintain its relevance in our one-click answer society.

  6. I’m in the process of getting ethics approval for a new tDCS project. I thought I was up to date on the research, but I have not heard of this tDCS marksmanship project. Can you please give more information on the lab or authors conducting this research project?

    And Ed:
    The current used in ECT is around 800 milliamps (mA). The current used in tDCS ranges from 1-4 mA. Administered properly, it’s barely perceptible and in fact is indistinguishable from a control condition where you administer 30 seconds of stimulation then slowly ramp it down.

  7. Magoonski, I don’t agree, I think this has everything to do with ethics. Being able to study twice as fast means you can use the rest of the time to study twice as much as someone who doesn’t have the tech, allowing you to metabolize that much more of the library before the test.

    And I suspect people who owned their own kit would have a distinct advantage over the people who have to trudge to the library to use a shared zappy-helmet on a part-time basis.

  8. Aldis: contact the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Accelerated Learning program []. They’re running the show on all this research. Or you can try the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, NM and Advanced Brain Monitoring in Carlsbad, Calif. And thanks for confirming my understanding of the difference between tdcs and ECT.

  9. @Sally Adee More demand for it will equal more manufacturing which will equal a lower cost…plus if you click on the link given on how to make one, it’s not that expensive in the first place. Besides, for those taking tests a lot (i.e. students), it would be better handing these out for free on college campuses with a laptop purchase than xboxes and ipods.
    Another thing, not everyone even takes ‘tests,’personally I’d use it for self-study in my spare time.

  10. @Guest: Actually, no! I’ve been prescribed Addreall in the past. It took only a few weeks before I stopped the medication: at the end of a day on Adderall, I thought I was going to die. I just felt so stripped and exhausted. I guess I don’t respond well to anything that resembles speed. The amazing thing about the tdcs is that the effects were the same but there was no crashing comedown.

  11. I’m puzzled by the harping on rich versus poor. What would this device be any more expensive than a crockpot?

  12. @Jason Flarg: The cheapest one they sell in the UK is £5000, and there’s a company in Edmonton, Alberta, that sells one for $575 but only to clinicians. So eventually maybe mass production will make them cheap, but not that cheap. DIY efforts– well, like I said, caveat lector.

  13. “what role does doubt and fear play in our lives if its eradication actually causes so many improvements? Do we make more ethical decisions when we listen to our inner voices of self-doubt or when we’re freed from them? If we all wore these caps, would the world be a better place?”

    I like your writing 🙂 As to the main question: I don’t think it is an ethical question as some people already have this ability naturally so it is not a special advantage, any more than having the right genes is. The reason we don’t have this on “all the time” is, I imagine, because the device gives you a sense of calmness and confidence that may sometimes get you into trouble. When wearing the device you were performing an activity of which you were already aware of the mechanics, and the self-doubt voice in your head was interfering with it. If you were to wear the device and then have to perform an activity that you were not prepared for, and did not know what to do in advance, you may have misplaced confidence in your ability to carry out the task; sometimes the voice in our head that says we can’t do it is right. I am no expert in neuroscience or evolutionary biology, but we evolved with the voice of self-doubt in our heads which may be an advantage and so should not be lightly thrown away 🙂

    Having said that, if you are in a situation where being “in the zone” is called for: knock yourself out, metaphorically speaking.

  14. Richard, thanks for your comment. I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with the question you’re addressing. I think, actually, the truth would be the opposite of what you say. The ability to focus that’s conferred by a lack of internal dialogue would more than make up for the lack of self-doubt. If you were able to devote all your mental attention and focus to a task, would self-doubt even be necessary?

    I am beginning to think that errors happen because we get tired of a task, exhausted by its futility, overwhelmed by our perception that it is too difficult for us. If all of those judgments were removed, freeing us only to concentrate entirely on the task at hand, there would be no need for the self-correcting voice of doubt.

    I think.

  15. Hmm… On reflection (while mowing the yard – what else is there to think about while mowing than cognitive theory, evolution and Dunning Kruger?) I think you are right for a larger number of cases than I considered in my question. Thinking calmly while carrying out a complex task is quite helpful. I have often suggested to people when carrying out a task they are not confident to do they have to “do it as if you mean it.”

    It would be interesting to see what the effect would be if the wearer had to carry out a “left field” task while conducting the experiment. In the New Scientist article you described the sniper training situation which you carried out successfully. However, you were not aware of how many you killed. If the company commander were to ask you “We need to know, how many you killed. We have intel on how many there are out there, and need to know if they are all gone.” Could you answer correctly? The device may not have given you the extra cognitive ability to count how many, or remember each individual, however I bet if you were asked ahead of the task to count how many, being calm would have certainly helped.

    It would be interesting to see if the device helps in more ad-hoc situations. Also to see if the Dunning Kruger effect (excessive confidence) would be enhanced or reduced.

  16. Anything I can do to shut off my internal critic would literally be a godsend. I would build a temple to it and worship it.

  17. I used to work for Dr. Bob Beck making his BT-5 Brain Tuner in the late 1980s and early 1990s and never thought of using it for this type of application. I used to assemble about a hundred per week back then. The FDA has approved of use for anxiety and depression yet transcranial electrical stimulation has been shone to increase learning. The main use was by Dr. Meg Patterson in Britain for treatment of addictions. Ridding addictions is in itself causes much anxiety, so I don’t see why it should not work for ridding anxiety for learning situations. Recently I started making the original BT-5 units again…
    [email protected]

  18. @Jason Flarg: Following up the previous comment on devices. The cheaper one is I think not actually tDCS but some kind of pulsed DC thing. Also check out the video on JOVE with shows how to use the actual tDCS device. Again when people talk about FDA approved they mean pulsed CES which is not tDCS – Fisher Wallace is the company (and BTW it is not approved by “cleared” without efficacy data). Neuroconn is a German company and Soterix is US. And this is all experimental at this stage.

  19. After one 20 minute session… “…the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.”

    Maybe it’s not technically addictive, but we do need to worry about this.

  20. A basic, simple and safe tDCS setup can be made using a 9V battery and a couple bulldog clips with wires, attached to 1cm felt pads soaked in brine. Trans-cranial current can be monitored using an inexpensive voltmeter (10mA ammeter scale), and finger pressure against the contact pads can be used to adjust the current flow to 1-2mA. Visual effects (brightening of the room’s light level) is observable around 1.5mA, especially when the contacts are placed directly across the temples. Very interesting cognitive quieting occurs after a few minutes, somewhat similar to the effects of Zen or Mindfulness meditation.

  21. Neuroscientist still haven’t got a clue, what is actually going on in our brains. So this shocks may enhance your learning capabilities for a while, but it also may have a really bad effect on your motorical skills who are damaged by this stunt. I recommend this article: Hardcastle, V./ Stewart, C. (2002): What do brain data really show? – Yes, it’s ten years old, but scientiest haven’t found out much in this time. Be skeptical and ask questions. Don’t take anything for granted if there is the slightliest doubt. At least, that’s how science works.

  22. I’d be concerned about all loss of self-doubt. Yes those negative messages are a drag. But what about fanatics who have no self-doubt? Only with the cap everyone could be a fanatic. Everyone could be unquestioningly following orders. A bonus for the military. Or for others in power. Not so much for civilians.

  23. That’s an interesting point, Lillian, but I feel like the fanatics alreay have an “au naturel” doubt-removal cap of their own. Bertrand Russell said it best: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

  24. I don’t know too much about the science, but I recognise great writing, and I recognise that background roar of the sneering bitter gnomes. I’ve just been through a week-long confidence roller-coaster, working a performing arts conference/market, where 200 artists are pitching shows to venues and festivals (would be an interesting experiment to be run there!) and try as I might, the little failures and imagined slights insist on stomping their needly doubty feet all over the couple of great things that happened for me.

    Which brings me to Lillian’s point, or is it a question, about the social (or other) value of self-doubt. Isn’t a sociopath someone who lacks empathy? IE who has total confidence in their vision/goal/path, above all others’ needs? (Please excuse my ignormance, experts in this field, and correct me if I’m wrong.)

    I make the observation that in my field (contemporary performing arts), the most interesting/complex/engaging work seems to come not from those with serene self-confidence, but from those with a degree of self-analysis, if not self-doubt.

    Shooting a gun at targets is one thing. The effect of the tCDS can be tested, in an experiment that appears on the face of it to be within the scientific method. What about for more subtle tasks, requiring more complex application of different kinds of intellectual processes, sometimes working against each other, of the kind that produce a product which can only be assessed subjectively and within culturally and historically defined contexts?

    All that said, I would try the electrodes in a flash.

    Thank you so much for this writing.

  25. “little failures and imagined slights insist on stomping their needly doubty feet all over the couple of great things that happened for me.”

    That’s poetry. I think I’m going to put that on a t shirt or just keep it in a doc on my desktop.

  26. Would you test drive the home-made unit? I’m tempted. Can’t do me any more harm than some of the home-made chemicals I’ve put through there.

  27. I’m surprised no one has mentioned concerns about the long-term health effects of this, especially as there is growing concern about the health impacts of long-term cell phone use and ambient “dirty electricity.”

  28. Harley, I don’t think I’d do it unless I had an electrical engineer who was also a neuroscientist standing by. I was tempted but I’m not good enough at wires and batteries (or, you know, neuroscience) to know the right place to apply the electrodes or the right amount of zap. And given the mess I’ve made of Ikea desks, I don’t think I’d trust my brain to my DIY skillz.

  29. You are a very funny person and really know how to pen down a good sentence Sally. I liked your story a lot.

  30. Sally, a great and thought-provoking article. And another in the chronicles of there’s nothing new under the sun. The whole ethical question is a bit off the point to me. The real issue, I think, is the whole “magic-bullet” subplot. As you reported, within three days, the effects wore off. What you described feeling while you were applying the tDCS is eerily similar to experiences I and many of my ilk experienced using hallucinogenics back in the 60’s and 70’s. A clarity of mind, a quieting of the “inner critic”, razor focus. While hallucinogens had many other effects, the ones I and my kindred spirits truly loved were the ones you describe, which were, themselves, quite similar to the descriptions of zen masters, yogis and other practitioners of meditative arts. I remember a Zen master who came to my college while I was in the very height of my thrall with hallucinogens and I asked him if he had ever tried them. He responded that he had, but they didn’t really affect him much. We then had a long conversation about “shortcuts” to enlightenment. It is a conversation that has stuck with me throughout the last 30 years. Its the classic American/technologist desire for shortcuts to health and well-being. Our whole medical system and that includes psychological/mental health is so askew with this bias. Quieting the noise has been the intent of mediatation for centuries. And it takes time and practice, but when it’s achieved, it stays. Not for three days, not for a week. That, to me, is the lesson of this. I learned it years ago when I would be crestfallen after several days of the most incredible mental/psychological states, only to awaken, sooner or later, to the ants of insecurity and judgement marching through my head. tDCS and mushrooms are great for giving us a look at what is possible. They are not the way to get there.

  31. 1.) Who cares *who* uses it? Why don’t you care *how* it’s used. I’d rather Romney’s scion uses it to be a better doctor, then Bubba’s scion in an attempt to be a better Redneck.
    2.) Enrolling in a university is only really an option if you are rich, or a minority. Some of us are neither.

  32. “Wouldn’t you wear the shit out of that cap?”

    Aw hell no! My brain may be messed up but at least it’s me. I don’t need to shoot electricity through it to be more-me. How can I “still be me” if I’m different?

    I’m not sure how this is different from drugs, except the lack of (known) side-effects. Working out has no meaning if I just put chemicals in my arm to make it easier, and learning has no meaning if I strap a machine to my head to make that easier.

    What do you want to accomplish? Is there some global scoreboard of life, or a universal finish line that we need to cross? I’m not sure what goal I have that would be helped by this. I’m only competing against myself. Artificial stimulation only helps if you need to compete against everyone else.

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