Military Researchers Zapping Brains to Make Better SnipersApril 8, 2012
Better snipers? *pfft* You’ll need this technology to help you make sense of all the information on your Heads Up Display:
Via: The Week:
Over the past few years, however, it’s become increasingly clear that applying an electrical current to your head confers similar benefits.
U.S. military researchers have had great success using “transcranial direct current stimulation” (tDCS) — in which they hook you up to what’s essentially a 9-volt battery and let the current flow through your brain. After a few years of lab testing, they’ve found that tDCS can more than double the rate at which people learn a wide range of tasks, such as object recognition, math skills, and marksmanship.
We don’t yet have a commercially available “thinking cap,” but we will soon. So the research community has begun to ask: What are the ethics of battery-operated cognitive enhancement? Recently, a group of Oxford neuroscientists released a cautionary statement about the ethics of brain boosting; then the U.K.’s Royal Society released a report that questioned the use of tDCS for military applications. Is brain boosting a fair addition to the cognitive enhancement arms race? Will it create a Morlock/Eloi–like social divide, where the rich can afford to be smarter and everyone else will be left behind? Will Tiger Moms force their lazy kids to strap on a zappity helmet during piano practice?
After trying it myself, I have different questions. To make you understand, I am going to tell you how it felt. The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. For me, it was a near-spiritual experience. When a nice neuroscientist named Michael Weisend put the electrodes on me, what defined the experience was not feeling smarter or learning faster: 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 up.
One theory is that the mild electrical shock may depolarize the neuronal membranes in the part of the brain associated with object recognition, making the cells more excitable and responsive to inputs. Like many other neuroscientists working with tDCS, Weisend thinks this accelerates the formation of new neural pathways during the time that someone practices a skill, making it easier to get into the “zone.” The method he was using on me boosted the speed with which wannabe snipers could detect a threat by a factor of 2.3.
Research Credit: ottilie