Could a Nine-Volt Battery Be Better Than Coffee?

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"Flow."

Although it can be annoyingly difficult to define with any precision and virtually impossible to measure objectively, everyone intuitively knows what it is, and most people have experienced some form of it at one time or another. It’s that state of effortless concentration that leads to superior performance, either mental or physical. Everything superfluous to the task at hand is shut out of the mind. At the highest level, Michael Jordan sees a basketball hoop that’s four feet wide and cannot be missed; Einstein is able to conjure the complete structure of the universe inside his head.

Attempts to find the flow are not new. For most of human existence, it has had crucial survival value. The hunter who could envision what the prey would do next was a successful hunter. And when the tables were turned, the ability to avoid, outwit, or win a battle with larger predators meant living for another day and keeping the evolutionary line intact.

Finding the flow through repetition is not easy. It takes time, energy, and commitment. Researchers at Florida State University say that it normally requires 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at anything. In our early hunter-gatherer days, that kind of rigorous training was mandatory. Today, for the most part, it’s optional. Some are willing to put in the time, depending on the goal. Others are not.

So, for probably as long as humans have been thinking beings, they’ve not only trained themselves to naturally be in the flow, they’ve also been on the lookout for shortcuts.

Traditionally, this quest has included the ingestion of stimulants. We can’t be sure of exactly what prehistoric people did, although if they stumbled upon something that gave them higher clarity of mind, they undoubtedly used it. (At least one theorist has postulated that the modern brain is the result of human interaction with psychoactive mushrooms native to Africa.)

Historically, we know that marijuana has been consumed for at least three thousand years and coca leaf chewed for the past two millennia or so, but caffeinated stimulants are of course the most widespread today. The history of coffee extends back to at least the twelfth century, and tea was discovered in 2737 B.C., at least according to legend. More recently, Coca Cola hit the street in the late 19th century and it has endured, even though the original formula was altered to replace the cocaine with caffeine in 1903.

The ferocity with which people crave stimulants is obvious every time one enters a convenience store and is confronted with a mind-boggling variety of products from which to choose… not to mention that those hoping to grab a piece of the flow can also dial up an array of prescription drugs like Adderall, or go to the black market in search of cocaine powder, rocks of crack, or crystal methamphetamine.

All cater to the same desire, and anyone who bothers to think it through has to realize that the War on Drugs can never be won. It’s a war on human nature.

But what if there were another way to access the flow – one that didn’t involve swallowing, smoking, or injecting anything… one that had no dangerous (or even merely unpleasant) side effects. What if you could hone a skill in a fraction of the time it would normally take? What if, for example, whenever I sat down to write the Technology Investor, the words just spilled out onto the screen, the way they sometimes (but not often) do?

What if the mind-state attained by world-class athletes and brilliant physicists – the flow – were available to everyone, at minimal cost and without breaking any law? Would people go for it?

We’re about to find out. The hottest new topic in brain research these days involves a technique called "transcranial direct current stimulation," or tDCS for short.

The setup couldn’t be simpler: Clamp a set of electrodes to the head, pass a miniscule direct electric current (2 milliamperes or less) through the brain for 20-30 minutes, and presto, instant immersion in the flow state. The whole thing can be run off of a common nine-volt battery.

So far, much of the lab work on tDCS has been done by or for the military, which has an obvious interest in reducing the time it takes for soldiers to acquire certain skillsets. Researchers have found that they can more than double the rate at which subjects learn a wide range of tasks, such as object recognition, math skills, and marksmanship. Thus, unsurprisingly, one DARPA program has been using the technique to cut the time it takes to train snipers in half.

What’s it like to quite literally put on a "thinking cap?" A handful of journalists have submitted themselves to the electrodes and written up their experiences. What stands out are a couple of things. First, time compression. The twenty minutes goes by without the awareness of that amount of time passing. More important, there is a suppression of the crosstalk with which our brains are normally occupied. The subject is able to focus totally on the task at hand.

Journalist Sally Adee submitted to the procedure as part of a course in advanced marksmanship, at which she was admittedly terrible. But then they turned on the current and, as she wrote in Better Living Through Electrochemistry:

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. ….

Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot.

The flow state lasted beyond the session, "gradually diminishing over a period of about three days," and causing her to confess that "the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes."

How does tDCS work? No one’s really sure, and any technical discussion is beyond the scope of this article. But if you’re interested in exploring the science, Zap Your Brain into the Zone is a good starting point.

Why isn’t everyone running out and buying one of these things? Probably only because they’re too new, few have even heard of them yet, and they’re hard to find. There’s also cost. Typically, they run between $500-600, and at the moment suppliers are generally selling only to research institutions. Professional supervision is highly recommended, and private parties at least need a doctor’s prescription.

All that could be about to change, as entrepreneurs see a mass market that awaits only ease of ordering and a better price point. Already, some tech geeks have published plans on the Internet for a DIY model – an unacceptably risky way to go in our opinion, and one we do not endorse. For one thing, long-term effects are as yet unknown. For another, if you screw up and accidentally send more current through your brain than it can handle, you could fry some important circuits. Additionally, care must be taken not to detach electrodes before the current is switched off, or else temporary blindness is one possible result. (You can’t jump up to answer the phone in the middle of a session.)

Still, home units are on the way. A small startup company is planning to offer tDCS kits soon for about $99. One of the big medical supply houses cannot be far behind.

Does this mean that one day Kindles will come with electrodes attached, so that users can read in a heightened state of neuronal awareness? Might we be riding the subway with tDCS caps on our heads and nine-volt batteries in our pockets, so that we can practice our Mandarin during rush hour? Well, could be. But how this all plays out depends on a number of interacting factors.

First of all, of course, it must be determined that tDCS is actually safe, which means that the FDA is likely to become involved pretty soon. That means at least some government regulation, and perhaps a lot. A number of predictable objections will be raised, too. Some people will probably claim that this is unwarranted tinkering with the human psyche. Some will warn that tDCS will only serve to further divide society between the haves and have nots. Some will maintain that students taking tests with thinking caps will have an unfair advantage over those who don’t have them – which may well be true. And so on. (For a more in-depth discussion of ethical considerations, see The Neuroethics of Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation in Current Biology.)

Look for government to be divided on private citizens’ access to this technology. There will be those who want to lump tDCS units in with illegal stimulants and simply ban them; there will be those who prefer to let the market decide; and there will surely be those who see the devices as very important for national productivity and want to subsidize them, in very much the way they now subsidize education. We’re already at the point where schools strive for computer access for every pupil. Why not universal access to tDCS, too?

Whatever the case, if these early, positive results for tDCS are confirmed, we’re on the verge of a truly extraordinary advance in the field of cognitive enhancement. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch where it all goes from here. And personally, I can’t wait to find some flow for myself.

Doug Hornig is a writer for Casey Research.

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