The glory of sudden, instant, effortless personal development. That was the enticement of RadioLab’s, 9-Volt Nirvana podcast episode.
Juice the brain; no more than a 9-volt battery. And suddenly, bam! You become an invincible sharp-shooter. Firing away at virtual killers, bringing them down with perfect accuracy. Where minutes before the juice, you’re lying in a pool of virtual blood.
Or maybe your brain suddenly, quickly, picks out a 3D shark from an autostereogram. Where minutes before the juice, your eyes and mind only saw a jumble of colored images, smeared together.
Or maybe, studying vocabulary, you add some juice and the words are suddenly easy.
The episode is about transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a process that promises to help us accelerate our learning, by zapping our scalp—and whatever brain cells lay beneath—with electricity. According to the podcast, “Researchers claim that juicing the brain with just 2 milliamps…can help with everything from learning languages, to quitting smoking, to overcoming depression.”
RadioLab’s story enticed. Aren’t there places in our lives we’d like to do something better? Quicker? Easier?
It was Sally Adee, sniper-in-training, that drew me in. Sally convinced her editors at New Scientist to fly her from London to Carlsbad, CA to test out tDCS. She went to Advanced Brain Monitoring, a group using tDCS to train snipers.
There, in a room using 360-degree training simulation tools, real sandbags and other props, holding an M4 assault rifle armed with a laser site and CO-2 cartridges to deliver a realistic kick-back, Sally ran through a simulation. First, without tDCS.
The simulation starts off slowly. She has time to react, to take her shots. And then, it gets chaotic. The Humvee in front of her explodes and killers come at her from every direction. It’s all too fast, she can’t decide. And at the end of the simulation, she’s taken down about 3 out of 20 suicide bombers.
Then they wire her up: attach one electrode to her right temple and another electrode to her left arm. They turn on the electric current. She’s put into the simulation again, only starting from the point where the Humvee was being blown up. And with the wires juicing her brain.
Her assessment of this second round is they’ve slowed things down; it’s not difficult, she can clearly see where the dangers are coming from and she picks off her targets. It ends, they unplug her, and she’s confused; she’s only been in the simulation a few minutes. She’s sure they didn’t give her a difficult simulation.
Then she looks at the clock: 20-minutes have passed. And, no, they hadn’t slowed it down or made it easy.
This time, with the juice, she’s scored a perfect 20 out of 20.
Bringing down “bad guys” makes this technology sound good. But what if someone was learning this skill to wreak destruction on an innocent community? Do we want that ability to be easily acquired?
Cheap Cost and Unknown Risks
But there may be no choice. The technology is there. It’s easy and cheap to build your own tDCS device, around $20 for parts at your local electronics store. It’s hard to regulate. People are out there, self-applying it, experimenting by placing it on different parts of their brain, trying to figure out what helps, what doesn’t. In reference to one fellow on YouTube talking about doing tDCS, the podcaster comments, “It’s like he’s playing Russian roulette with that thing.”
People have reported “loss of consciousness after using it…feeling burns…there was one report of someone going temporarily blind.” In the comments posted below a tDCS TEDx talk by Maarten Frens in December 2013, one person warned, “I burned a dime size hole through my scalp today with only 8 aa batteries and eeg pads. This is dangerous!”
The device is a blunt tool, not a scalpel. And there’s a theory, called “The Zero-Sum Theory of the Brain,” which says our brains and body are a system. If “juice” is sent to one area, it has to come from another area; enhancing one area is “by definition diminishing another.”
Is it Good? Or Bad.
For Sally, who acquired impressive shooting skills using tDCS, she admitted she valued some of the after-affects. She felt more confident driving and some of the critical voices in her head were quiet for several days. Those feelings were powerful and positive. But she was also worried. She was surprised how much she “craved doing it again. It felt,” she said, “like a drug with no side effects. I don’t know if I’m going to get addicted to electricity…”
A deeper, philosophical question is raised by Soren Wheeler, Jad Abumrad, and Robert Krulwich, the show’s hosts. They ponder those moments when we’re “awake and present,” that feel like a gift from the universe. What happens, they ask, when we can “order up” a state of mind; when “it’s an expectation” we “can create… on demand?”
“I think that the ‘gift’ versus ‘ordering it up’ is pretty deep to me,” says Soren. “I feel like, in a world where you order things up then you’re in a world where you think you deserve things or you think you’ve earned them or think other people haven’t. That’s a world that’s empty of true gratitude.”
- Podcast: RadioLab
- Episode: 9-Volt Nirvana, June 26, 2014, 27 minutes
- Hosts: Soren Wheeler, Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich