Better Living Through Electrochemistry

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.

It was only when they turned off the current that I grasped what had just happened. Relieved of the minefield of self-doubt that constitutes my basic personality, I was a hell of a shot. And I can't tell you how stunning it was to suddenly understand just how much of a drag that inner cacophony is on my ability to navigate life and basic tasks. [...]

Me without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head; I've experienced something close to it during 2-hour Iyengar yoga classes, but the fragile peace in my head would be shattered almost the second I set foot outside the calm of the studio. I had certainly never experienced instant zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at. There were no unpleasant side effects. The bewitching silence of the tDCS lasted, gradually diminishing over a period of about three days. The inevitable reintroduction of self-doubt and inattention to my mind bore heartbreaking similarities to the plot of Flowers for Algernon.

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. I also started to have a lot of questions. Who was I apart from the angry little bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I'm too scared to try? And where did those voices come from? Some of them are personal history, like the caustically dismissive 7th grade science teacher who advised me to become a waitress. Some of them are societal, like the hateful ladymag voices that bully me every time I look in a mirror. Invisible narrative informs all my waking decisions in ways I can't even keep track of.

What would a world look like in which we all wore little tDCS headbands that would keep us in a primed, confident state free of all doubts and fears? Wouldn't you wear the shit out of that cap? I certainly would. I'd wear one at all times and have two in my backpack ready in case something happened to the first one.

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16 Responses:

  1. David M.A. says:

    I don't know. "Lacking all self-doubt" sounds worryingly like "sociopathic" to me.

    • NelC says:

      I find that SSRIs cut down on the self-doubt a lot, though not as much as this tDCS, by the sound of it. If you have a modicum of self-doubt then that's probably a good thing, but if you have too much to function properly then there's no describing how good losing the angry gnomes feels. As to sociopathic, I haven't killed anybody yet, and I doubt that I'm going to start soon. I don't think I've even become more of a jerk.

    • Rae says:

      This is true, and there are many times that I wish certain people had MORE self-doubt. (Though please also note that ASPD is a distinct personality type that has a few other key qualities- such as lack of empathy- and is not just "I'm great at everything!")

      Also, consider the large amount of jerkface behavior caused by a person's own insecurities. Freed from the nagging mental gremlins of doubt, humans might actually find it in themselves to be nicer. This has proved to be true for other, milder, non-electric forms of self-esteem boosting.

      • Chas. Owens says:

        I don't think "I'm great at everything" is a good description for losing the angry head gnomes. Based on what the article says and my own experiences with having and not having angry head gnomes (they go away randomly sometimes) here are two inner dialogs:

        With angry head gnomes:
        Well, that sucked. I think it was too far to the left. Oh goddamn it, that was too far to the right. Ah come on, I didn't even move it and now it is even farther to the left. This thing sucks, I suck. What! Now it is above target! I thought I had that down. Goddamn it, why did I get up this morning. I am too tired for this. It must be affecting me. Why don't I take better care of myself. I knew I would be doing this today. I should have prepared better. Why am I bothering. Everything turns out like this. This is just like . . . and so on

        Without angry head gnomes:
        Think it was too far to the left. Let's correct it a little. Well, that was closer, but too far to the right. And now too far to the left. Ah, I see if I X it Ys, but if I Y it still Ys. There must be a Z I need to fix. And there it is. Cool, I did not expect that.

  2. Mark Welch says:

    This kind of thing could only be worn by people who had been trained well enough to use it responsibly. But how do you judge that, though? Can you? I suppose tasp users would self-correct, just like any other addict.

  3. Peter Todd says:

    http://brmlab.cz/project/brain_hacking/tdcs here's a guide to making your own stimulator. I work as an electronics designer, and I can say that the *circuit* makes sense and would do what it's supposed too, however the pads to actually couple the current to your head could easily be out of whack. If I were to build one, and heck, I think I will, I'll verify everything properly with test equipment and come up with a way to find out of the current density of those pads really is uniform and low enough, similarly if the resistance of the pads stays low enough ((18V-3V)/2mA=7.5kOhms) to put that much current through your brain.

    Something to consider about any electrodes, as users of tens devices already should know, is that putting a DC current through your body isn't a great idea, as it causes electrolysis. That's bad. Presumably the idea here is to keep the current density low enough to avoid that problem, but, it's hard to guarantee that the current density stays low enough. Presumably actual medical electrode pads are designed to do this, but it's another thing I'd want to research carefully.

    Oh, and here's another set of people experimenting with this stuff: http://www.reddit.com/r/tdcs

  4. Edouard says:

    Or, if you're male, you can use a little thing called testosterone. Reckless overconfidence built-in!

    (I've seen docos about people transitioning from male to female, and one of the things they talked about was the loss of confidence they suffered as their hormone balance changed...)

    • pavel_lishin says:

      I listened to a pretty great TAL podcast (I think it was this episode: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/220/testosterone), and one of the segments was about a man whose body stopped producing testosterone. His descriptions were very interesting:

      The interview with a man who lost his testosterone continues. He explains that life without testosterone is life without desire—desire for everything: food, conversation, even TV. And he says life without desire is unexpectedly pleasant. The man first wrote about his experiences, anonymously, in GQ Magazine. (8 minutes)

  5. Jed Davis says:

    IHNPH, IJLTS “Radical Anxiety Termination”.

  6. Jonn says:

    Barring the electrodes and marksmanship training, this sounds oddly familiar.

  7. James C. says:

    I think you (jwz) need a tag specifically for “tasp”. Six posts about it means that it’s time to be a category of its own.

    • Erbo says:

      Except that, in this case, "tasp" is probably not the right terminology. A Niven tasp stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain wirelessly, from a distance. A better term might be "droud," another device from Niven's works, used by wireheads to regulate the flow of current into their brains. (Although this device would actually be more like the induction helmets used by ecstasy peddlers to demonstrate the effects of current addiction, as seen in "Death By Ecstasy" and mentioned briefly in "The Defenseless Dead.")

    • jwz says:

      Duly noted.

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