Every single feeling of perception – of touch, of smell, of color – can be traced back to a particular set of neurons.
Stimulate those neurons directly and a person’s perception of reality can be controlled.
In the 1940s, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield experimented with the brains of his patients. He sent mild electric shocks to their somatosensory cortex.
As a result, they felt as if their body was being touched even when it wasn’t. A shock to one area, a feeling of their arm being pushed, a shock to another and a feeling of their upper lip being nipped.
Science fiction takes brain stimulation technology to its extreme – fully immersive virtual reality. Want the user to feel as if he’s actually boxing, not just waving his hands in the air? Sense his arm and body movements. Then stimulate the neurons responsible for his fist and arm when he gives a hit and the neurons responsible for his head and nose when he takes one.
But why limit direct stimulation of the brain to physical perception?
Stimulate the brain’s happiness centers and BAM – you’ve got happiness on demand.
You can purchase a direct brain stimulation device online, plunk it on your head, pick a brain region, get zapping, and enhance your mood, memory, and attention.
You can spend 25 years working hard in order to make your life perfect and finally get those happiness neurons firing as much as you want, or just maybe, you can use tDCS for 25 days.
Isn’t That What Cocaine is For?
Cocaine provides feelings of happiness on demand. Why do something as strange as zap the brain when we’ve got drugs that can do the same?
Because drugs have side effects and cause tolerance.
- Drugs cause stomach cramps, weight gain, fatigue, dementia, kidney stones, psychosis, and all sorts of other problems. Caffeine isn’t the most widely consumed drug because of its effectiveness – it’s because of its safety.
- The human body is perhaps the most complex organism in the universe. The only way something so complicated can keep itself alive is by vigorously maintaining balance. Otherwise something as innocuous as caffeine could cause it to die.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness. But the first time many people consume caffeine, their heart also beats much faster than it should, a condition called tachycardia.
After a couple doses the brain starts to develop tolerance, counteracting the effects of the foreign chemical. Good! Prolonged tachycardia is dangerous. But the flip side is that over time, caffeine becomes less effective.
In order to maintain the same effects, people take larger and larger doses. For many this means larger and larger side effects, like anxiety. Worse, no matter how much more caffeine they put into their body, many people are unable to reach the same effectiveness they felt at first – their brain has adapted.
Direct brain stimulation has none of those limitations.
tDCS – DYI Brain Stimulation
There was a time when brain stimulation was dangerous business. But don’t let your imagination take you too far.
Over the past few decades, brain stimulation technology has become safe and non-invasive.
I’m not talking about electroshock therapy, which is non-invasive but induces seizures. I’m also not talking about transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is also non-invasive but is expensive and occasionally causes serious side effects.
I’m talking about transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which is non-invasive, cheap AND safe, using a pair of electrodes to deliver a constant, weak current to a specific part of your brain.
You can purchase a tDCS device for $250 to $400, or make one yourself for less than $50 if you’ve got some experience with electronics. Operation is simple – decide what you’d like to focus on – learning, attention, mood, or one of a dozen other things, look up where you should place your two electrodes, place them there, and then turn the device on. One device is as easy to use as a headband – pick it up, place on the head.
As long as you carefully follow the instructions, using tDCS to shock your brain is safer than it sounds. Over the past ten years tDCS has been safely used on tens of thousands of people. The worst that’s been seen are headaches and fatigue which went away after a few hours.
But if you do follow instructions, long-term safety is also unlikely to be a concern – folks have used tDCS for years to no ill effect. That doesn’t mean that long-term safety should be assumed – tDCS may cause subtle changes which don’t manifest into disease until decades later. But like with food sweeteners, the risk may be worth the return.
If tDCS can make me 10% happier and 15% more productive, I’m willing to risk the small chance that I might, for example, get dementia a few years earlier.
Tolerance isn’t an issue because the brain has no means of changing its response to foreign sources of electricity. In fact, the opposite is true.
Because of long-term potentiation and brain plasticity, tDCS is more effective the more it’s used.
Can you imagine that? Caffeine or anti-depressants without side effects that become more effective the more they’re used, not less.
What Are the Benefits of tDCS?
There are two types of tDCS – anodal and cathodal.
Anodal stimulation makes neurons in a particular area more likely to fire. So if you’re trying to learn a new language, anodal stimulation of your brain’s language and memory centers would make neurons in those areas more likely to fire and form new connections. In other words, your learning would be faster and easier.
Cathodal stimulation makes neurons in a particular area less likely to fire. So if you’re trying to break a bad habit, let’s say your sugar addiction, cathodal stimulation of your brain’s addiction circuitry would make neurons in those areas less likely to fire and reinforce existing connections. In other words, breaking the habit would be faster and easier.
tDCS has the potential to enhance well-being in many ways. Let’s look at four in particular – accelerating learning, reducing pain, treating depression, and enhancing mood.
The military has used tDCS to accelerate the threat detection training of its snipers. Detecting a threat five seconds late can be the difference between an enemy fighter killing an ally and the enemy fighter getting taken down before he can do any harm.
Anodal stimluation of the brain region devoted to object recognition has allowed snipers to be trained 130% faster. 1 Not only that, soldiers using tDCS have reported feeling as though they’ve entered flow – a state of pleasant, effortless concentration.
Other studies have confirmed these results – tDCS can be used to enhance performance, increase attention, and improve learning. 2, 3 One person went as far as creating foc.us, a tDCS device made specifically to enhance performance and attention while playing video games. Yes – we have a technology which can drastically increase well-being and its first commercial application is enhancing video game playing.
But don’t get too excited, results have been mixed. Some folks have used tDCS to no effect, probably because one size fit all solutions don’t exist – each person’s brain is too different. If you have lots of money, it may be worth a try.
The economic cost of chronic pain is estimated to be in excess of $500 billion every year. 4 Chronic pain is terrible – so bad that like with me in the past, it can lead to depression and ruin a person’s quality of life. 5, 6
Unfortunately, current brain stimulation technology is unlikely to help. According to a Cochrane Review, considered the gold standard of systemic research analysis, tDCS and TMS reduce the severity of chronic pain by about 15%, not much better than the effects of a placebo.
On the other hand, while the average patient has reported mild results, the variance has been large – some folks have seen zero change, but others have seen life changing improvement.
People who are depressed show significantly less activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), a brain region associated with executive function, long-term planning, and emotion regulation.
7, 8 Not only are these folks perpetually sad, but they lack the motivation and willpower to do anything about it. So if anodal tDCS can increase activity in a depressed person’s dlPFC, anti-depressants can be replaced with a safer alternative.
tDCS has proven more effective than placebo in treating depression, with the average depressed person treated with tDCS seeing a 29% improvement in just a few weeks. 9, 10
But not to be a broken record, but again, results have been mixed. Some studies saw improvement rates of 80%, but others of less than 10%. And even within the same study, some patients had a complete remission while others saw no change.
Taken all together, 20% of patients see improvement comparable to taking an anti-depressant. If you’ve got lots of money and are depressed, I’d suggest giving it a try – tDCS has no known side-effects and works in weeks rather than months.
Probably. Because anti-depressants can pose a health risk to a pregnant women’s baby, safer alternatives are in high demand. tDCS has been used on pregnant women to no apparent effect, and a number of tDCS researchers believe the device to be safe for pregnant women. In addition, studies done on TMS and ECT, more dangerous brain stimulation therapies, have shown few risks. However, no clinical studies on the safety of tDCS to a pregnant women’s baby have yet to be completed, although 2 are currently in progress and are slated to finish in 2015.
A common complaint of those in positive psychology is that applied psychology focuses almost exclusively on disease and dysfunction. When it comes to brain stimulation research, this complaint is valid.
In writing this article, I was able to find over 40 studies which examined the possibility of using tDCS to treat depression, but just 1 examining the possibility of using tDCS to enhance mood in folks who are healthy. Just one. What the hell!?
A cheap and easy DYI therapy which could increase mood by 10% would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, increasing well-being, worker productivity, relationship satisfaction, physical health, mental health, and more.
Unfortunately, you and I are going to have to wait a few years for that. Current technology and knowledge aren’t enough. Using tDCS in the same way that it’s used to treat depression seems to have no effect on folks who aren’t depressed. 11 In other words, going from happy to very happy requires something different than going from unhappy to happy, something which has yet to be investigated.
Cheating? What are you talking about?
Cheating is only possible if the game that you’re playing is fair. There’s nothing fair about the game of life – some people are born happier, healthier, richer, more charismatic, and more attractive than the rest.
I absolutely don’t endorse using tDCS to become so happy that a person just sits around all day doing nothing but smiling, also known as wire-heading.
I’m talking about my awkward friend using tDCS to reduce his social anxiety, so that he has the confidence to ask more women out on dates.
I’m talking about my friend with ADHD using tDCS to enhance his focus, so that working is more enjoyable.
I’m talking about my dad using tDCS to increase his mood, so that he has more love and compassion to share with patients.
I’m talking about my uncle using tDCS to increase his life satisfaction, so that he can stop working in order to earn ever more money, and start spending more time with his friends, family, and hobbies.
I’m sure that in a few decades the technology will develop to the point where wire-heading is possible – where it’s possible to feel as if you’re on cocaine all the time without any side-effects or tolerance. When that time comes society will have many tough problems to tackle. But for now we’re left with more mild technology – a 10% increase in mood, not 1000%. 10% is safe and healthy, 1000% not so much.
Can Direct Brain Stimulation Do More?
The science of direct brain stimulation has barely begun. Consider all of the variables which need to be explored – the position of the electrodes, the strength, frequency, and duration of the current, the unique characteristics of the user’s brain, and what the user is doing while being shocked.
For example, that one study above which found that tDCS has no ability to enhance mood in folks who aren’t depressed may not be valid – the participants weren’t doing anything special while being shocked.
tDCS doesn’t trigger a set of neurons, it merely makes them more or less likely to fire. If we want to create long-term changes in the brain’s happiness regions, the neuronal connections we want to strengthen need to be triggered while the tDCS is active, perhaps by listening to upbeat music or doing loving-kindness meditation.
Another limitation is a lack of focality. The image below compares the effects of traditional tDCS with a newer technology. The areas colored in light blue and green are the areas being stimulated, while the area in deep blue is unaffected.
Traditional tDCS is more a gigantic hammer than a precise scalpel – almost 50% of the brain is getting shocked. Trying to learn tennis faster? Not only is the motor cortex being stimulated, but so is the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, and the somatosensory cortex. 12
I’ll soon purchase a tDCS device, but more for experimentation – although the potential benefits are sky-high, we’re years or more away from seeing a reliable protocol that works for most people. But if I were an angel investor, this is where I’d be putting my money.
If you want to learn more, this FAQ is excellent.
The article was originally posted at happierhuman.com, republished with the conset of the author.