The idea of stimulants (i.e. coffee) allowing us to work better (or reach a functional level, even) is certainly nothing new — but what if instead of ordering a cup of joe in the morning, we ordered a jolt to the brain?
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) may sound like some arcane remnant of psychotherapy from the 1940s, but this decidedly low-tech, DIY practice is gaining quite a lot of traction in both the media, and in the neuroscience community.
The procedure is simple: using a set of electrodes, an electric current is passed through the scalp to specific parts of the brain to enhance mental performance. Not to be confused with electroshock therapy (ECT), tDCS involves a much smaller jolt (up to two milliamps, or the equivalent of a 9-volt battery) to the brain, intended to alter brain activity — just a little bit.
Apparently the technique packs some serious charge — starry-eyed supporters claim that tDCS offers a wide range of benefits, allowing users to learn new languages faster, increase their focus, overcome bouts of depression, and ease motion sickness, as the BBC reports. It’s even possible to hone in on specific parts of the brain to double your rate of learning in a specific area, such as math — place the contraption in an area on the scalp called the right parietal, or the area just behind your ear (note: we can neither confirm nor deny that this is, in fact, a good idea).
Not Quite Pseudo-Science
Dr. Vince Clark, Director of the University of New Mexico Psychology Clinical Neuroscience Center, corroborates many of the amateurs’ claims. As the New Yorker reports, in a recent study funded by the US Department of Defense, he found that stimulating specific parts of the brain enabled army recruits to detect hidden threats and explosive devices more easily in combat situations. Moreover, those who received tDCS learned new material “twice as quickly as the control group.” In other words, tDCS was able to cut the amount of time it takes to learn something new in half.
Dr. Clark has since tested the effectiveness of tDCS in a number of other areas, including its ability to treat alcohol addiction: program participants report having gone from “drinking a fifth of liquor a day to not drinking at all.” Even Johns Hopkins Medicine points to the technique as a cheap and noninvasive way to treat neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic pain.
But tDCS isn’t all peaches and cream — like most medical procedures, there are downsides too: reported side effects include tingling or itching under the electrodes, headache, fatigue, and in the most severe cases, loss of consciousness and even blindness, dealt with in an FAQ on Reddit.
The Bottom Line
The New Yorker’s Elif Batuman makes a pointed statement in his own article about tDCS: “It is a rare human who doesn’t wish to change something about his or her brain.”
Before you scoff at the notion of shooting an electrical current through your own brain, stop and think for a just a moment: aren’t you at least a little curious?
There’s something undeniably intriguing about unlocking the hidden potential of the human mind — that if we just stimulate the right parts of our brain, we can do more with our minds than we ever thought possible.
Having undergone tDCS, journalist Sally Adee poignantly recalls how for a few days, post-stimulation, tDCS allowed her to see herself clearly for the first time in as long as she could remember. She reports reaching a state of effortless “flow,” with her usual anxieties nowhere to be found. As she concludes to Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich on an episode of Radiolab:
“I was just this person I hadn’t experienced before.