New Dogs, New Tricks
Recently, I have been doing a lot of searching into the possibilities of making the human brain and body, particularly mine, more efficient. Sure, Adderall is a fun, 6 hour boost. Who doesn’t love tweaking that three pounds of squishy stuff inside their skull to get the house a little cleaner, or to finish studying for an exam? Sadly, these effects are not permanent and you will not feel like a super-star forever. This insta-boost can be disheartening when it dies down, leaving you feeling sluggish after returning to your normal homeostasis. Who wants that? And don’t get me wrong, I’m not just picking on Adderall, I’m sick of coffee and its absurdity, too.
AINT NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT, including myself. I want to stay up later, read more, and retain all information that I process, rather than studying for endless hours just to forget the information in a week. There are other things I could be doing. Although, I have no clue what those things are at the moment. As humans, we grow weary of sifting through all of the jumbled thoughts in our oddly-shaped heads, just so we can focus when we need to focus. Luckily, I ran across a few recently published papers speaking on one glorious topic…………………………………………TRANSCRANIAL DIRECT CURRENT STIMULATION (for the sake my fingers, let the abbreviation be known as tDCS).
The Basics of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation
In short, this is the act of placing electrodes on the scalp and running an electrical current through the cortex of your brain (those lovely wrinkles that make up the outer layer). Yes, you heard me. Electrocuting yourself, only slightly, can bring on some really cool effects. tDCS has been around for a couple of centuries, yet people pushed it aside due to it being a shockingly dangerous method of therapy. Shockingly……ha. In the past few years, there have been more than 300 experiments published on this noninvasive stimulation. I’ll tell you how it works, soon enough. First, we must talk about the neat possibilities it brings to the table.
What can it do?
tDCS has been shown to benefit people in all forms of cool ways. These range from improving mathematical ability and language acquisition, all the way to general memory enhancement and depression alleviation. It sounds like magic, doesn’t it? I thought so too, but I can assure you, Tinker Bell is not involved. Depending on which brain site you stimulate, the effects are limitless, just like you are soon to be! After I began reading these articles, I was quickly consumed. I mean c’mon, a method to become super-human without a prescription pill?! Therefore, I did what my sleep deprived squishy stuff asked me to do, I started building one. It was truly an………….electrifying experience. HA! Ok, no more puns. I have included a few published manuscripts on previous research, just in case you are beginning to feel your curiosity peak.
Building my tDCS Device
After a few issues with trial, error, and an exploding 9 volt battery, I decided to convert a medical device, commonly used for constricting sweat glands, into my stimulator. I threw together some homemade electrodes out of kitchen sponges and wire mesh, soldered some wires together, made a PB&J, and braced myself for the grand day. If you are interested in building your own and need guidance, shoot me a message. Here are a few photos of my set-up!
As with all of my posts, I will have a section dedicated to enlightening you of the lovely molecular workings of your brain. As for tDCS, its simple method is to make your neurons more likely to fire. What happens when your neurons fire, you may wonder? In short, this will allow you to create and access emotions, retain a memory, or even have that ridiculous song play over and over in your head. Thanks, neurons. For a moment, let’s imagine an imaginary starting line called the resting membrane potential. This is where the electrical charge of each of the 100 billion neurons in your brain normally resides. At the starting line, your neurons cannot fire. They need an additional electrical charge. This is normally supplied by those tiny molecules in your brain, plugging into receptors. The molecules only get going once they receive a stimulus, which we have flooding our five senses at all times. When a neuron receives a stimulus, this allows its resting membrane potential to lift rapidly to the finish line, or the membrane threshold. Once it crosses the threshold…BOOM! The neuron will fire, thus, causing an action potential. This is happening millions upon millions upon *insert another large number* of times all day, every day inside your noggin. When we stimulate the brain with tDCS, we can now think of it as raising the resting membrane potential greatly above normal. This does not cause it to cross the threshold and fire, but it does allow your neurons to start the race near the finish line.
It Still Makes No Sense. How does this Alleviate Depression or Help Me Learn Math?
Let us take depression as a brief example. People with this common disorder have a few issues with their pre-frontal cortex. This portion of the brain is commonly correlated with higher-cognitive thinking. In depressed individuals, a small area in the PFC is not as activated as it should be, or it may be more activated than what is needed to maintain a healthy emotional level. There simply aren’t enough neurons firing as frequently as needed. This leads to lower levels of those neat neurotransmitters. With tDCS, we can give these neurons a little electrical boost using the mechanism mentioned above, that may lead to immediate relief from this dull sadness. Although, usually about 3-7 sessions of stimulation are optimal to keep it away. It’s called long-term potentiality, but I won’t go into that right now. This is the EXACT same method used to excite certain neurons that help you retain numbers, or help you study vocabulary. Pretty wonderful, right?
The most common issue mentioned with tDCS is the unethical nature. Certain people feel that this could be a form of cheating. Shouldn’t it be illegal to alter your biologic make-up with electricity to help you obtain a better score on the SATs? Or learn a new language rapidly? Would you like the truth of the matter? No, it is not unethical. Our world, in its entirety, revolves around advancing the human race, leading to our survival and intellectual nourishment. We got sick of walking and running, so we made moving vehicles, eventually leading up to cars, trains, planes, etc. Can you take a guess what this did to our brain? It allowed us to alter the connections between our neurons to learn the best method for operating these vehicles. We are highly adaptive creatures. What about calculators? Would this not be cheating? Why not learn all formulas and do the calculations on pencil and paper? I’ll give you the enlightened viewpoint you seek. It is simply because we are not ignorant. If there is a faster, more efficient way to do something, humans will do it. This is why I am writing a blog post on a video box with certain keys corresponding to the language I understand best, and conversely dogs are sleeping all day and begin to hyperventilate anytime they see a new food. These alterations to our lives and bodies are what take us to the “next level” in the game of survival above all other animals. How will we know what we are capable of if we throw out experimentation?
Wrapping our Heads around the Big Picture
Look, we have been on Earth a substantially long time. I’m not complaining or speaking hogwash about our ol’ blue planet, for the record. I would never. I’m a big fan. But, this is not a time for remaining neutral in our learning progression. Too often do we get off work, go home, and watch television for hours. This is a mistake. We should not be partaking in activities that simply have no beneficial purpose. Do you honestly believe an episode of Desperate Housewives or Junkyard Wars will give you a slew of knowledge that can help you adapt, and be a better person? Do you believe you will remember that fantastic episode a week later? Will it be important to you? Let me assure you, I am not against “down time.” As the future progresses, we take on more activities and tasks at an exponential rate. We tend to become susceptible to brain overload. These meaningless activities can be a nice relaxation and refreshing stimulus, however, they can also become addicting and lead to a fall in your human ambition. Do not allow excuses to dampen your natural, innate curiosity. It is imbedded within all of us. When you arrive at boredom’s doorstep, learn something new! Read! Learn a new science. You do not have to pick up a boring autobiography or one of Einstein’s works on Physics. Pick up a romantic, fiction novel. Even I do from time to time. Bring on the Nicholas Sparks, if you must. I happen to enjoy warming my heart. You may even read up on the wonders of electricity and build your own tDCS device. Contact me! I’m down to help you get started! The beauty of the human brain lies in our imagination. Use anything to your advantage to stimulate this, and I promise your hunger for the endless questions of our Universe will continue to flourish.
If you have any questions, comments, or topics you would like to hear about….shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always up for a thoughtful chat.