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. Letting the ethics of the class divide stifle advancements of this nature would be detrimental to all of society. In reality the rich are nothing more than beta testers of new technology. Let them work out the bugs and when the technology is ready it will trickle down the masses and be much more affordable. History provides plenty of examples of this: the automobile and cell phones comes to mind. And what of the personal computer? My first computer cost several thousand dollars in 1980s money. I can buy a modern computer for a few hundred dollars that would run circles around that dinosaur.

    The actual electrical components that make up such a device are ridiculously cheap. There’s no reason one couldn’t be made for under $50, possibly even $20. The real questions are: Is it safe for long term use? Is it something that people *should* own and self-administer?

    It’s not like there is some magical rich-person cabal, hell bent on keeping this out of the hands of the masses.

  2. +1 to Michael Lynch.

    Everything has its price. Meditative practices can take a long time to achieve the desired effects. Drugs, and now perhaps electricity, can get you there much sooner — but they are not without their own costs.

    Not saying that it shouldn’t be available — I’m in favor of giving people the tools to experiment with, along with appropriate education about usage & (known) consequences.

  3. I’ve actually just finished taking part in a tDCS experiment at Oxford University, and while it is true that the stimulation improved performance and helped the retention of learning, the amount by which it did so was really quite small. I was listening to nonsense words and repeating them back and my accuracy under tDCS improved by half a syllable.

    The purported scientific benefit of the stimulation is that it’s supposed to excite neurons. This article here places most of the benefit on the quieting of anxiety. I’m not a particularly neurotic person, so perhaps my level of performance would have shown a more marked increase if I had more worries to overcome.

  4. Very well-written.
    Improvement of time-consuming skill-acquisition: excellent. Humans as efficient and reliable as machines is an interesting proposition only insofar as your purpose is an errorless and quick performance of precise skills in a social context (education, office-work, industry, military etc.).
    However, outside the one-third of your life-time devoted to work, machine-like efficiency is the saddest view of human life as a whole. Machine-like 100%-efficent friends and family would make life a mediocre hell. People as high-tech artefacts. A certain degree of doubt, frailty, and contradiction makes us human – and bearable as company. A matter of context and degree.

  5. Hi Joey, thanks for your comment. I also did tDCS at Oxford, but not for marksmanship, and I noticed the same less extreme effect. The effects depend in part on where the electrodes are placed on the head. “Flow”– that state of effortless, undistracted attention– may depend on hypofrontality, in which the electrical activity of the prefrontal cortex is suppressed (thereby shutting off the mind’s chorus of doubt). For spatial learning tasks, the electrode placement will be different than for motor skills and object recognition, and therefore might not cause hypofrontality.

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