What it's like to wear a brain-stimulating "thinking cap"

Science writer Sally Adee provides some background on her New Scientist article describing her experience with a DARPA program that uses targeted electrical stimulation of the brain during training exercises to induce "flow states" and enhance learning. The "thinking cap" is something like the tasp of science fiction, and the experimental evidence for it as a learning enhancement tool is pretty good thus far -- and the experimental subjects report that the experience feels wonderful (Adee: "the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.")

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.

If you want to try the (obviously ill-advised) experiment of applying current directly to your brain, here's some HOWTOs. Remember, if you can't open it, you don't own it!

Better Living Through Electrochemistry (via JWZ)

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  1. As cool as the concept sounds, it really strikes me as one of those, “I wonder if in 20 years we’ll have a lot of messed up brains or not?” things.  Mind you coffee messes with your brain too, but still this is a bit different.

    There’s a quote where she says, “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.” Makes you wonder just what the roots of that desire are? Certainly she discusses not wanting to dip back into the swamp of self doubt, but sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if it was filled with people brimming with self confidence. Not necessarily with enough knowledge to act, just self confidence.

    1. Maybe this is why our mythology is filled with all sorts of warnings about exceeding our limits: the Tower of Babel, Pandora’s Box, Prometheus and so on.

      1. Also why our mythology is filled with heroes. Regardless of how commendable it might be, people get the confidence to do things many others think can not or ought not be done.
        If the culture you live in does not inspire confidence in you as to how those shaped by it would behave when granted perfect unified autonomy of self, then what is wrong with your culture?

    2. sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if it was filled with people brimming with self confidence. Not necessarily with enough knowledge to act, just self confidence.

      Out here in the rest of the world, we call that place the USA.

      ZING!

      No, no, just kidding. I love you guys.

    3.  Good point. There are many situations where self-doubt is necessary, or in other words, a conscience. If George Orwell were here, he might imagine that this technology would one day find its way into the hands of a military bent on creating soldiers without a conscience who blindly follow orders, deaf to the voice of their better nature. Now who’s funding this again? Oh, nevermind…

  2. Remember, if you can’t open it, you don’t own it!

    HA! You hear that, God, you monopolist maker of bloated crapware? Next time screws not glue! 

    1. I don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s more akin to clearing out the cobwebs so you can focus.

  3. This is going to usher in a whole new era of headwear. I can see the fedora pushing its way out of retro hipster chic, and mainstreaming its way to Wall Street where all the traders have their hats retrofitted with electrified brain juicers. 

  4. ” … 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.”

    Scientologists go bananas, claim this was L. Ron Hubbard’s idea first — ?

  5. Great article.  I’ll be interested to see what happens when the traditional early adopters – pr0n and gambling – get their hands on this.

  6. 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.

    This is more or less my experience when I take (legally prescribed) amphetamines. Adderall quiets the chatter in my head — I hadn’t thought specifically about it quieting the self-doubt chatter in my head, but it does that, too. Not to the point of causing me to make stupid or dangerous decisions; just to the point of letting me get out of my own way and stop overthinking everything.

    I wonder what the neurochemistry of the “thinking cap” is, and how it compares with the neurochemistry of amphetamines.

    1. It would seem to be a mind/brain problem, I think. Of course there are natural ways of overcoming all the clutter in the mind to access the brain (psyche) and think clearly. Drugs do help, too. Of course when scientists use the mind to understand the brain I suspect they will see things which do not actually exist and get all excited. Just like the Pope really. Were the scientists wearing their hats?

    2.  Yeah, me too. 

      And this: “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.”

      Like, the first time I went to class on Adderall, it was like, OMG class is the best thing EVAR! I no longer have to watch the clock and doodle and look out the window, I can just sit here and listen and think about class stuff, and it’s GREAT!

  7. I was hoping to find someone here with some experience with the diy approach that would hopefully steer me away from it.  It sounds so dangerous yet undeniably appealing.

    1. Given that one of the DIY subjects went temporarily blind, I believe that DIY neurostimulation / neurosuppression by any method requires the mother of all disclaimers.

  8. From what she’s describing, it could also be an interesting tool for treating depression. Currently very torn about sending the link to a robotician, clinically-depressive friend…

  9. Also, from the linked howto paper (more like a folk-research diary, really), concerning the first version of the project : 
    “tDCS v 0.666 Scary version
    status: DONE
    Source: 2x9V alkaline battery
    Current: 0,7-3 mA
    electrode : saline soaket sponge + Al beercan foil
    position anode-DLPFC cathode-right supraorbital area (above right eye)
    note : because it was too scary it was destroyed and parts reused”

    1. Really? This incredibly scary thing is just powered by two 9V batteries? Am I reading that right?

      Man, I put 9V batteries on my tongue all the time. I wouldn’t have imagined that two of them would be enough to fuck with your brain.

          1. @Toby Graves: Right… that was exactly my point. This “incredibly scary thing,” which has big warnings splashed across it about people trying DIY versions, and has apparently temporarily blinded one DIYer, is powered by just one little wimpy 9V battery.

      1. Sure.  What’s the normal functioning voltage of your brain?  Isn’t it something like from ten to a hundred microvolts?  So a 9 volt batter is, like, ninety thousand to a million times more powerful that the stuff that’s usually going on in your brain.  Of course, you’re not ACTUALLY getting 9 volts in your brain, because you’re dropping off a LOT as you go through the skin and the skull and everything, but still.

  10.  I think this is an image associated with the site, but can’t any site to load either.  Call Alex Jones

    1. That’s it? A DC current? Wouldn’t that just go through the skin and not even make it through the skull, dura mater, and the rest?

      1. Electricity takes the path of least rresistance. There’s other considerations, such as induced current and magnetic field, induced capacitance, static voltage differentials, etc.
        In short, running electricity near an electrical conductor does a variety of things to that conductor.

      2.  As long as enough current goes through the brain, I guess…  Some energy would transfer through the skin, but that would be just “wasted” energy and wouldn’t really count toward providing the effect.  Just what energy transferred through brain.  But then again, I’m just speculating.

        1. Now that the site is back up… it looks like he’s got a current regulator set to provide 1 mA across the electrodes. I’m puzzled by this, because skin resistance (which, according to Wikipedia, increases with lower voltage, and is 1750 ohms or less at 25 VAC for under 5% of the population, the rest having higher impedance) would cause the voltage across the electrodes to exceed 9 V, thus the circuit would fail. It’s a simple enough circuit, though. I’m interested in trying it, if anything to prove or disprove its efficacy.

          1.  The more I hear about this, the more I’m starting to wonder if the whole thing isn’t bullshit along the lines of tapping your chi with leyline aligned crystals or E-Readers. 

  11. Not the best way to test the concept really: have someone practice for 20 minutes, then apply the “treatment”, retest and WOW does better.

    Most people do things better after they practice them a little. A better test would have been to zap her first, test, then test again post-zap. And of course, statements by participants are as much use as, well, the least useful thing you can think of, times infinity.

    1. Haven’t actually checked their experiment design, but I guess the usual way to do this would be to have one group shoot, get zapped, shoot again, one control group who shoots, then takes a break and shoots again, and one placebo control group which shoots, wears a funny hat, and shoots again.

      1.  The theoretically nice thing about it is that you can reverse the polarity to invert the relative effects; provides a very good control. 

    2. Thoroughly agreed.  There are more well-controlled studies of tDCS in the literature; I’m very dubious about this particular case.  

    3.  Experimental testing on tDCS is actually really straight forward. In the sham condition, current is applied for a few seconds so that the wearer feels a tingling which they would soon become accustomed to anyways.

      It is very safe to assume that the author, being gung-ho about the whole thing, is getting a serious dose of placebo on top of any actual effects.

    4. The problem is that the effects last longer than the treatment. The effect of learning easier lasts longer, but besides that what is learned is also retained better. This makes it more complicated than what you are suggesting.

  12. Sounds like meditation to me. If you practice meditation regularly clearing your mind in this manner is something you can do when you need to. Just takes a few seconds once you have your brain trained.

    1. There is some difficulty in your argument — meditation is a skill which must be learned, and involves concentration despite internal mental distractions.

      1. Meditation, put simply, is a 2 step process. The first requires concentration to clear your mind of mental distractions. The second it existing in that state which takes no concentration (assuming there isn’t some external force trying to distract you).

  13. ADHD could benefit from this, I imagine. Look into the “alpha stim” version. It’s currently “readily” available, through various treatment clinics. I’ve yet to try it, as it’s not accessible locally. Seriously, how much worse can it be than our current options.

    1. I know I read the article and literally chills went down my spine I am so excited. If this worked I’d be wearing a hat every single damn day. 

  14. So, it’s a Farraday Cage for the DARPA Global Stupid Ray that’s been on since about 1994?

  15. This reminds me of a short term job I had where the boss was a pot apostle. He invited me to his place to try his weed. What I got out of it was an understanding of how lieutenant Calley and his men, who were totally ripped, could line up Vietnamese villagers and mow them down in cold blood without feeling a thing. It did not make me a fan of the drug.
    All the crap floating around in your head makes you human. Precise performance of a task is what robots do.

    1. When one is experiencing the “flow” state, one is still aware of what is occurring — it is simply that one is undistracted by one’s own internal monologue.

        1. Nope. “Am I doing the right thing” is an enculturation process. People, when they act, do not pick the right thing and then act — rather, they pick what they want / have trained to do, and apply posthoc rationalisations.

    2. Odd, the impression i have off weed users so far is that they would not bother to even slap away a fly if it was sitting on their nose.

      1. I suspect that’s because they’re going to continue business as usual. If business as usual means firing gun, then that’s what they’ll do. If business as usual means being chill, then that’s what they’ll do. 

  16. Will it create a Morlock/Eloi-like social divide where the rich can afford to be smarter and leave everyone else behind?

    Hasn’t this question been asked of every technological advance ever introduced, and hasn’t the answer always been a resounding “no”?

    1. I think the rich have already left us behind.  We’re just fooling around with the barn door at this point.

  17. This strikes me as very ethically problematic.  DARPA creating devices which remove self-doubt? Don’t we have enough instances of soldiers shooting the wrong guys accidentally without removing the nagging voices in the back of soldiers heads that make them wonder if they’re doing the right thing?

    1. The current problem is that military training is focused on open field combat, where anyone in front of you use the enemy and anyone behind you is allies. But current day warfare do not operate in this way, except for the very opening stages. Once the opening stages have been completed it turns into something that would be more familiar to a police officer than a soldier.

  18. 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.

    Then, a moment later…  I realized I could fly.  I could fucking fly.

    I went to the window, jumped and darted across the sky like an enlightened, clear-headed, flying squirrel.  During flight I figured out my TPS reports and swooped into a store and stole a backscratcher.

    I will now electrify my genitals.  And, then…  the world.

    1. I dearly adore you, 0xDEADBEEF.

      Most people don’t /believe/ they can fly, unless they are currently / have often experienc[ing|ed] a psychotic episode.

      Doubtless, however, tales will step forth of the teenager who acquired plans from the Internet and who subsequently self-experimented, developed a deep belief of the ability to fly unaided, threw him/her self from a high place, and which is then emailed in a multiply->>>-quoted chain across sixty percent of the world.
      Politicians, sensing money, shall step in front of any revenue boli and advocate ridiculous jurisprudential impossibilities. Commerce will require ID for the purchase of glass jars and aluminium foil.
      Parents will tell their children to Just Say No to Neuralysing (as the hip slang will come to call it).
      Every religion in the world will scramble to both use and Retroactively take credit for this.

  19. But was she just as good a shot after they turned off the power? Did it actually improve her skill, or simply provide a situation where she could perform as if she had skill? IOW, are the gains real and permanent?

  20. Sounds like the flow state is a natural mental state… But induced in this case

    I read about similar brain toys all the way back in Arlington texas back in the very early 90s in a print copy of boingboing. Maybe issue 1… Ahh nostalgia.

    Of course back then boingboing was edgy, and subversive. No naysaying comments pointing out hypothetical long term health risks, and comparing it to the one time they tried marijuana, way back in the day. Way to turn fun toys and good times into the plot of a Lifetime channel movie (if your not familiar with those, and you think im way off base, you owe it to yourself to check that channel out.)

  21. The circuit diagram looks really simple and cheap. I shave my head anyway.  I just got a new soldering iron yesterday. I think I have a new project!

    My assumption is that it just applies a swamping current over a part of the brain that otherwise gets in the way of flow. I’m very interested in how it affects programming: would I become distracted less? Would the lack of constant mental second-guessing mean I make more errors or see fewer innovative solutions to problems?

    Even if it’s 100% placebo, if it improves my coding, I want it :P

    I’m very interested in the results of the blind tests they plan.

    It’s really cool that the parts list is so cheap:
    1 x LM317
    1 x 1.2k resistor
    1 x 51 ohm resistor
    1 x switch
    2 x home-made electrodes.
    1 x bottle of saline for the electrodes
    some elastic and cloth and maybe a needle and thread. Or duct tape.

    Optional bits:
    1 x slide switch (power on/off)
    1 x push switch (battery test)
    1 x LED (battery indicator)
    1 x resistor for the LED (390Ohms, 0.5W) (for above LED)

    They also mention a 10k trimmer, but seems to have been replaced by the two resistors.

    Because the circuit is so damn simple and cheap (the most expensive bit is likely the hat!), and since the circuit’s apparently public domain (it’s research for the US gov’t, that makes it PD and unpatentable, right?), I can easily see these things being peddled on street corners for less than a cheap Christmas hat with blinking LEDs.

  22. When I started reading Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s book, all I could think of was that flow=Adderall. I mean, not always, one can take Adderall and not achieve flow, but in general, at least for an add-er like me, taking Adderall is a pretty dependable way to get yer work on.

    “the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.”

    Well that sounds like Adderall too.

    “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”

    And that sounds like Adderall too.

    I think it has something to do with dopamine.

    (Also, sorry if this has been mentioned, I didn’t read through all the comments, I’m running low on meds.)

  23. Hmm, so I have what appears to be the right equipment: a GEM-STIM unit that I use for chronic back pain. It’s 9V powered, and the instructions are explicit about NOT using it on the skull or scrotum. Maybe I’ll give it a try. Keep the potentiometers low to start with…

  24. Does it make people smart enough to realize the Defense Department’s global strategy is fatally flawed and self-defeating?   

    Honestly, what use is intelligence, even genius, to an institution that is immune to rational argument?

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