Are you having “blonde moments” even though you have dark hair? Do you think your brain could use a jolt? Perhaps you are more right than you realize. A growing craze involves precisely that – jolting the brain to enhance mental performance. It’s called “brain hacking,” and while the process sounds like it would be excruciating, it actually involves painlessly transmitting low level electric pulses into the skull.
Stimulating Dormant Brain Cells
The principle behind brain hacking is that its electric pulses jar dormant areas of the brain into activity, thereby increasing alertness and enhancing mental capacity. While on first impression the notion may seem far out, the process is not untested. Disorders such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease are routinely treated by targeted jolts of electricity transmitted through devices that are implanted into patients’ brains.
For people who are not suffering from cognitive disorders but who simply want their brains to function more sharply, a noninvasive process called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) uses electrodes to transmit electric pulses into the brain. An increasing number of enthusiasts swear by the practice, claiming that they learn material faster and perform better on tasks that involve eye-hand coordination.
Out of the Lab and Onto Your Head
Research seems to back them up. A 2013 study involving 27 active duty Air Force pilots showed that subjects who received tDCS stimulation experienced a 25 percent improvement in performance on training tests than subjects who received no stimulation. Vincent Clark, director of the Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center at the University of New Mexico had conducted a study in 2012.
Funded in part by the Department of Defense, the study showed that subjects who received a “full” dose of tDCS measuring 2.0 milliamps (mA) performed twice as well in a test to reveal hidden objects as subjects who received a very low dose of tDCS (0.1 mA) or none at all along with an hour of training. These studies and others like them have inspired the creation of devices such as the Foc.us headset, a $250 contraption that gives the wearer the appearance of an extra from a science fiction film.
Cheap techies have resorted to creating their own machines from instructions available online and materials that cost about $25. Groups such as the Bay Area Brain Hackers have also sprung up to “explore the interface of the brain and modern computing,” as the profile page of the group declares. As of July 2014, the Meetup-sponsored group boasted 326 members.
Don’t Try This at Home
These do-it-yourselfers inspire deep concern in observers such as Marom Bikson, a biomedical engineering professor at the City College of New York. He compares such homemade devices to attempting to recreate prescription drugs at home. The issue is complicated even further by how easy and inexpensive it is to obtain the raw materials needed to create tDCS devices.
There is very little that the FDA or any other regulatory agency can do to stop people who wish to create their own brain-stimulating contraptions, according to Stanford University law and bioethics professor Hank Greeley. Greeley is skeptical about the effectiveness of such devices. Greeley pointed out that 2 mA produces very little electrical pulse activity. On the other hand, research institutions have begun conducting studies to determine if tDCS may be useful in treating such disorders as depression, anxiety, cognitive decline and chronic pain.
Whether tDCS is eventually proven to be effective or dismissed as an odd medical footnote, by all appearances the practice appears to pose minimal risk. The most common side effect is a tingly head! For the time being, the 300+ members of the Bay Area Brain Hackers are content to continue to explore their own brand of mental stimulation.
If you want to boost your productivity, you don’t need to resort to electro shock therapy. Instead, try a few of the 12 Scientifically Proven Methods To Boost Productivity.