Meet My New Girlfriend: tDCS

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.

Qualitative Significance:

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)

Practical Feasibility:

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):

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Technical Articles

You Tube Videos

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