What is the meaning of life? This question is profound, but has become so cliche that its profundity is often overlooked. The problem, though, is that to produce an answer to the question requires that we hold prerequisite suppositions: what is the nature of humanity? Where does meaning originate? Does meaning itself have some yet other transcendent meaning?
Possibly the most important part of the mental model humans construct is their mental model of themselves. This is what we call our identity. It takes all the beliefs we have about ourselves and attempts to put them together into an internally coherent whole. Some of our most cherished political, religious, racial, and gender thoughts about ourselves tells us who we are and how we ought to interact with the world.
If someone offered you a pill that would make you smarter, how much would you be willing to pay for it?
While there are such thing as nootropics such as racetams and ampakines which purportedly help with things such as memory and attention, the effects are generally somewhat small and the chemicals can be somewhat expensive to buy or difficult to find. But there is another method that has fairly well established evidence for making you smarter, helping you concentrate, alleviating depression and anxiety, and increasing the speed at which you learn. And it all comes from zapping your brain with electricity, like at the end of “One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Well, not exactly like that, anyway. It’s called transcranial direct current stimulation or tDCS.
tDCS uses low amperage (< 2 mA) direct current (instead of alternating current) to either stimulate or inhibit (depending on the direction of polarity) a section of your brain. Neurons in the human brain send signals through their axons using electrical signals – depolarization through influx of sodium and efflux of potassium (an action potential) – so running electricity through certain areas can either cause depolarization or hyper-polarization in that area. Anodal (positive) stimulation increases activity while cathodal (negative) inhibits activity.
What’s great about tDCS is that the equipment for it is cheap and that it is non-invasive. The electrodes can be placed on the head without having to remove hair or break the skin. And depending on where you place the electrodes, you can receive different effects:
While it’s still too early to say whether this is a cure-all for various ailments such as depression and anxiety, or a boon for late night study sessions, there is already quite a bit of scientific evidence that this technique is effective, as well as anecdotal evidence from DIY users. This 25 minute Radiolab podcast showcases just how amazing this technique might be.
Imagine being able to get an extra boost in brain power and clarity when you’re tired but still have to work. Imagine learning to play an instrument, or learn a second language, or study for a math final and retain it all much quicker. Imagine getting home from a stressful day and just strapping a couple electrodes to your head and almost instantly having the stress melt away.
And while this is all great, I’d like to extrapolate a bit. Imagine having micro-electrodes implanted under the skin on your head, with currents that can be targeted at smaller and more specific areas of the brain that can run simultaneously. You can get multiple tDCS affects at once without having to strap the electrodes to your head. It could have a power source you carry with you like an MP3 player (or maybe even embedded into your body). Depending on what you were doing, you could have different settings to optimize your brain to the task. Does this seem possible? Is this something you might be willing to do?