For many years, I’ve been interested in the possibility of what I call “technoboosts.”
A technoboost is something based in the physical sciences that would reliably accelerate the attainment of stream entry. I got the term “boost” from general relativity. Boost is what acceleration looks like in 4-D space-time. Some people claim that such technoboosts are currently available but none of the current candidates meet my criteria—not even close!
Our current systematic ways of bringing people to stream entry could be described generically as two-component systems. We give people certain ideas (darshana), and we give people certain practices (sādhanā). I envisage the possibility that, in the future, there might be a third component added: science/technology-based boosters (modern upāya).
The three components could work together to reliably and quickly bring deep results with, hopefully, a minimum of problematic side effects (“Dark Night” problems, etc.). I have no idea the specific form such technoboosts would take, but one possible paradigm would be to induce a precise spatio-temporal pattern of activation and deactivation (our old friend of simultaneous expansion/contraction). The pattern of activation/deactivation would give the students a strong taste of a desired state (such as no-self). They could then be trained to reproduce that on their own.
So I’m always interested in technologies that create patterns of activation and deactivation in the human brain, such as: neurofeedback, TMS, transcranial ultrasonic neuromodulation, and so forth.
Recently, several people have called my attention to a very simple and quite old form of neuromodulation that is currently gathering a lot of research momentum—transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).
Here’s why I’m excited about tDCS.
The effects of tDCS seem to map directly to the core themes in mindfulness.
- Enhanced ability to focus (this seems to relate to the concentration piece in my definition of mindfulness)
- Enhanced ability to detect signals against a noisy background (this seems to relate to the sensory clarity piece)
- Enhanced ability to deal with pain (this may be related to equanimity)
- The turning off of mental talk (i.e., a samatha effect)
As a process, tDCS…
- Seems to produce the above effects reliably.
- Apparently can both increase and decrease the average level of excitability for targeted populations of neurons (so, for example, it may be possible to simultaneously activate concentration and clarity switches while deactivating ego switches).
- Seems safe (at least relative to other brain stimulation modalities).
- Has a mechanism that is at least partially understood (seems to be related to long-term potentiation and long-term depotentiation).
- Is technologically simple (stimulation devices involve very simple electronics–in fact, anyone can make their own crude but effective tDCS units using a 9-volt battery, a single resistor, and a couple sponges!).
I think this is an area where the meditators/mindfulness practitioners of the world could help push the envelope of neuroscience by getting involved with responsible research on the effects of tDCS. If you run into anything interesting, please add it in a comment on this blogpost. Also check out these guys, who are creating an online community of “body hackers” interested in this stuff. (I’ll leave it to your discretion to decide whether body hacking counts as responsible research 😉 .)
Here are some links (Thank you to Mike Michaels for many of these resources):
- Amping Up Brain Function: Transcranial Stimulation Shows Promise in Speeding Up Learning. Fields RD (2011). Scientific American.
- Brain Zaps Improve Math. Carpenter, J. (2010). Science Now.
- Consensus: Can tDCS and TMS enhance motor learning and memory formation? Reis, J et al. (2008). Author manuscript. Published in final edited form as: Brain Stimul. 1(4): 363–369.
- TDCS guided using fMRI significantly accelerates learning to identify concealed objects. Clark VP et al (2012). NeuroImage; 59(1): 117–128.
- Zap your brain into the zone: Fast track to pure focus. Adee, S (2012). New Scientist, Issue 2850.
- Effects on Concentration/Clarity
- Transcranial direct current stimulation augments perceptual sensitivity and 24-hour retention in a complex threat detection task. Falcone B, Coffman BA, Clark VP, Parasuraman R (2012) PLoS ONE7(4): e34993. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034993
- Facilitate insight by non-invasive brain stimulation. Chi RP, Snyder AW (2011). PLoS ONE 6(2): e16655. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016655.
- Polarity-Dependent Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Effects on Central Auditory Processing. Ladeira A, Fregni F, Campanhã C, Valasek CA, De Ridder D, et al. (2011), PLoS ONE 6(9): e25399. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025399
- Effects on Pain
- Anodal transcranial direct current stimulation of the motor cortex ameliorates chronic pain and reduces short intracortical inhibition. Antal A, Terney D, Kühnl S, Paulus W (2010). J Pain Symptom Manage; 39(5):890-903.
- Efficacy of anodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) for the treatment of fibromyalgia: results of a randomized, sham-controlled longitudinal clinical trial. Valle A, Roizenblatt S, Botte S, Zaghi S, Riberto M, Tufik S, Boggio PS, Fregni F (2009). Author manuscript. Published in final edited form as: J Pain Manag.; 2(3): 353–361.
- Noninvasive transcranial brain stimulation and pain. Rosen AC, Ramkumar M, Nguyen T, Hoeft F (2009). Author Manuscript. Published in final edited form as: Curr Pain Headache Rep.; 13(1): 12–17.
- Underlying Mechanism
- Reorganizing the intrinsic functional architecture of the human primary motor cortex during rest with non-invasive cortical stimulation. Polanía R, Paulus W, Nitsche MA (2012) PLoS ONE 7(1): e30971. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030971
- Modulating cortico-striatal and thalamo-cortical functional connectivity with transcranial direct current stimulation. Polanía R, Paulus W, Nitsche MA. Hum Brain Mapp. 2011 Sep 16. doi: 10.1002/hbm.21380 [Epub ahead of print]
- Direct-current-dependent shift of theta-burst-induced plasticity in the human motor cortex, Hasan A, Hamada M, Nitsche MA, Ruge D, Galea JM, Wobrock T, Rothwell JC (2012). Exp Brain Res.; 217(1):15-23. doi: 10.1007/s00221-011-2968-5
You Tube Videos
- A biohacker’s prototype tDCS device
- GoFlow – The Open Source tDCS Experiment
- Mind Alive tDCS Lecture
- tDCS informed consent video
UPDATE – 7/12/13 –
Hi folks, I wanted to update this blog post: Recently there’s been some concern about the safety issues because so many people have been experimenting on their own.
Check it out: DIY Brain Stimulation Raises Concerns