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Does Brain Stimulation Work - And Do We Want It To?

Professor of Financial Economics and Part-time Value Investor, Transfin.
Feb 3, 2020 5:24 AM 2 min read

Ever attached a couple of electrodes to your forehead, connected them via wires to a nine-volt battery and resistor, ramped up a current and sent an electrical charge directly to your brain?


Are You Charged?: The above-mentioned scenario is neither hypothetical nor futuristic. Neurostimulation is the intentional modulation of the nervous system using an electric charge, which stimulates the nerves to increase activity. It is a technology that exists and is being experimented with – and commercialised.


Brain Drain: Neurostimulation was originally developed to help patients with brain injuries or psychiatric conditions including depression. Over time, however, it has also been used for recreational purposes, including by those hoping for cognitive enhancement and athletic endurance.


This has meant inevitable commercialisation, with headsets that promise to "overclock your brain" and "excite your prefrontal cortex" being marketed. In fact, neurotech is one of the largest areas of direct-to-consumer medical devices and services and is expected to cross $3bn this year.


The tech itself includes a broad umbrella of devices, from non-invasive electrodes you can wear on your head (tDCS and CES) to literal brain implants (remember Elon Musk’s Neuralink project?).


It's All In Your Head: One thing we know for sure about brain stimulation technology is that we still don’t know enough about it. There’s research that says it can indeed boost your mood, intelligence and stamina. But there’s also research that warns it can cause fatigue, seizures and scalp burns. And even its record of increasing human efficiency are mixed.


So it’s not as simple as buying a brain-stimulating headset from Amazon and conquering Mount Everest the next day.


But before wondering if brain stimulation works, we might want to ask ourselves – do we even want it to?


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