Mary HK Choi
September 6, 2013
I'm lying on my bed, on my back, with a bandage wrapped around my head. If I had a thermometer sticking out of my mouth, I’d look like an emoji for a sick person. There’s nothing wrong with me, at least nothing the bandage can fix, but there are two electrodes under it — one above my right eyebrow, the other higher up, beyond the hairline above my left eyebrow. They’re supposed to be making me smarter, or so the internet says. The eyebrow alignment thing is clutch because it’s hard to know exactly where to plant the anode and cathode, and placement is key if you want this thing to work.
I can’t tell if it’s helping me yet. Before I got into any of this, I expected a raging placebo effect. I’m a sucker when it comes to under-explored human potential and ‘stuff that makes you be better’. I like science a whole bunch, but I love The X-Files more — I want to believe. A year ago I quit smoking and started running, which is universally understood as good, but now I eat chia seeds, coconut oil, and dinosaur kale, too, and I buy into sensory deprivation tanks. I don’t eat gluten or dairy (except KerryGold butter) and listen to quite a few podcasts about the Quantified Self. I roll my eyes at the grandstanding blowhards who have ‘fixed’ themselves but I keep up with the gizmos and apps that track people’s various rhythms. I’m no lifelogger or body-hacker, but I’m curious, and I want to be in-tune enough to know what’s really the matter, so I can level up and be at my most awesome.
Right now, though, my concerns are superficial: I’m worried about my pillows. I’m using wet, Post-it sized sponges to help conduct the electricity that’s making its way into my skull, but I overdid it. The waterlogged squares are weeping all over my face and into my down pillows, and those are fancy and newish, so I don’t want them to start smelling weird. I don’t know what it means that I’m so concerned with my bedding, but I’m hoping this session will figure that out for me. The water juices the current so it doesn’t run out of steam while it’s lapping my head, but it’s also there as a precaution: I don’t want to burn myself like this one guy on Reddit who has a forehead patch that looks like a hamburger. However, this is my fourth day of auto-administering TDCS, or transcranial direct current stimulation, and I’m slightly discouraged. It sucks to admit this, but I may need TDCS to be intuitive enough to do TDCS correctly in the first place.
Few things make you feel more irresponsible than relying on a subreddit for information on zapping your brain. To catch you up on everything I know, TDCS (or tDCS — there’s something controversial about whether the ‘t’ should be capitalised or not, but I’m a tourist so I’m sticking with a big ‘T’ because it’s easier) is also called non-invasive brain stimulation. It’s non-invasive because nobody’s getting cut open. If you break all the words down it means you’re sending electricity through your head where it turns on, stays on for a while — usually 20 minutes — and then shuts off. During the session, the bit of brain directly beneath the anode (in my case, the red wire) is thought to become excited, whereas the region beneath the cathode (the black one) is thought to be inhibited.
If you’re thinking of TDCS in terms of electroconvulsive therapy, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl Interrupted , it’s not like that. Dr Marom Bikson, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the City University of New York, explained it to me like this: ‘The way to think about electrical stimulation is that you have a dose, just like with a drug. But instead of talking about what the drug is made out of in terms of chemical composition, we talk about the waveform, duration, and placement. Any alterations make it a different drug altogether.’ TDCS is two milliamps, ECT about 800. See, super-different.
Bikson has been studying the effects of electric currents on neurons since he did his dissertation on the subject at Johns Hopkins in 1995. He’s the guy TDCS fanboys email all the time, asking questions or writing screeds about their discoveries and adventures. He has dynamite SEO when you look for anything TDCS-related, especially in New York. He’s also the CEO of Soterix, which is like the Louis Vuitton of TDCS machine manufacturers. At Soterix, they have that whole ‘price available on request’ thing going on, like you see in high-fashion magazines. He won’t even tell you how much one costs since there’s no way to get one outside of a research setting.
When I visited Bikson at his office uptown to check out the gear, I asked him to run a session of TDCS on me, but he shut me down. He did let me feel the current on my arm, at which point I sweet-talked him into showing me what it felt like on my head. But only for a minute. We both knew there are minimal risks to TDCS since we’re talking teeny, tiny electrical currents, but he could lose his job running experiments on randoms so I understood. I didn’t flip his desk or set fire to his office.
The funny thing about TDCS is that I’d never heard of it until I did, but once I had it started showing up everywhere. It’s like that movie with Jim Carrey where he sees the number 23 wherever he looks, but less boring. The articles on the topic are wonderfully seductive and because I’m such a believer I buy into most of them. The ones from British newspapers are my favourites. They crib juicy bits from clinical trials in Brazil or Germany, or else DARPA experiments, and pull-quote on and on about how TDCS makes you smarter by ramping up your maths skills and language skills, while giving you laserlike focus.
It’s also supposed to improve marksmanship. Last year, Sally Adee wrote an article on TDCS for New Scientist . She visited a lab in Carlsbad, California where they hooked her up to a machine intended to evoke a ‘flow state,’ that Zen zone where you tune-out self-doubt. She said it helped her learn how to shoot an M4 close-range assault rifle in a military training simulation. The first go around, she was garbage at it, but when she used TDCS she found herself in a state that she described as a ‘near-spiritual experience’ and slayed every single one of the targets. Reading her story, I was reminded of the immortal words of 30 Rock ‘s Liz Lemon: ‘I want to go to there.’
The godfathers of modern TDCS are Dr Michael A Nitsche and Dr Walter Paulus from the department of clinical neurophysiology at the University of Göttingen in Germany. In the year 2000, Nitsche and Paulus published an article in The Journal of Physiology , which described how TDCS alters excitability in different regions of the brain by up to 40 per cent. In the brain, excitability affects synaptic plasticity, which means that the neural pathways that determine the capacity for memory and learning are changing substantially, depending on where you’re zapping. There are various electrode montages, each correlating to what we understand about regions in the brain. If you want to stimulate the language centre, you place your anode and cathode on different parts of your head than if you’re interested in reducing epileptic seizures. It seems straightforward but it’s actually mysterious. For example, stimulating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex influences memory but also helps you quit smoking.
Most of the recent internet write-ups on TDCS have been about the ‘foc.us’, a TDCS headset that claims to ‘overclock’ your brain and make you better at video games. Priced at $249, the unit comes in two colours (red and black) with a fancy zippered carrying case like the kind that overhyped headphones made by ex-rappers are packaged in. They’re beleaguered with shipping issues and have fallen a couple of weeks behind in fulfilling orders (mine has not arrived yet) but their customer service is highly communicative. The website is a riot. In the ‘press’ section, there’s a handful of high-resolution images with attractive models wearing the headset with Blue Steel expressions, very low-cut jeans, and ‘come hither’ eyes. It’s clear this stuff is marketed to gamer bros, but from what little I know, I’m not convinced of the effectiveness based on the foc.us contact points. The sponges are too small and flat and the headset looks hard, like a girl’s plastic headband. I can’t imagine the electrodes are placed snugly enough on the skin to guarantee an effective circuit.
Advertising image for the foc.us gaming headset, slogan: ‘Overclock your head!’ Credit foc.us tDCS Labs
Despite my scepticism, and the fact that I don’t even know what it means to ‘overclock’ the brain, I’m intrigued. After all, the desire to make yourself smarter is universal, and in my experience, if you’re smart in the first place, you’re even greedier for cognitive boosts. When I get writer’s block, I’ll do almost anything to get over it. Sometimes, I even give a guy money to let me lie in the dark in his saline-filled tank. The only thing I won’t do is noortropics. Smart drugs scare me. Especially ProVigil (Modafinil), the pill that’s referred to as the ‘ Limitless ’ drug since it behaves like NZT-48, the brain-boosting stuff that takes a doltish Bradley Cooper and makes him superhuman-smart. Certain overachieving Silicon Valley types are candid about taking it regularly, like Dave Asprey, aka The Bulletproof Executive, who also cops to augmenting his chemically heightened brain function and alertness with TDCS. He’s had a kit for over a decade, and he throws it on like a light cardigan whenever he feels like it. He claims it allows him to efficiently reach ‘gamma states,’ a transcendental level that takes the Dalai Lama four hours of meditation to achieve. I know this because he talked about it on Joe Rogan.
I like Asprey’s casual style, but part of me wonders if everyone who undergoes TDCS will go nuts in 50 years, in the same way I’m slightly convinced everyone with LASIK will go blind on the very same day like in that José Saramago book. Still, I have to at least do it once. And by once I mean five days a week for two weeks at least. How else will I know? But the thing about TDCS is that nobody will do it on me outside of a clinical trial. Most of the clinical trials currently being conducted in the US focus on stroke rehabilitation and pain management. There are also some interesting attempts to treat depression with it, and there’s a team at Harvard that’s looking into the effects of TDCS on food cravings. That’s the study I’m really curious about, since I have a Dorito problem, and because it’s being led by Dr Felipe Fregni, who is a big deal in TDCS circles. But the problem with clinical trials is that most are double-blind with a sham arm, which means neither the subject nor the investigator knows who got the real treatment. Even if I hoof it to Boston for a couple days a week, there’s no guarantee I’ll be juiced. And while there’s a study at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m not eligible for it, because English is not my first language.