Bio-hacking joy


Dear Ms. Magpie,

I just discovered that if I stick electrodes on my head and attach them to a 9-volt battery, I feel wonderful! I want to tell everyone, but I’m afraid they’ll think I’m crazy. This is not a joke.


All Lit Up 

I understand your fear of telling the world about your discovery. Though I have heard of transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, I was skeptical of both the efficacy and safety of a D.I.Y. practice involving electricity and the brain. But with minimal study I’ve learned that a substantial amount of research supports the popularity and use of this growing trend. It is even F.D.A.-approved. It may not be well known in West Marin, but it is by no means new. 

Neither, of course, is your desire to feel wonderful. It seems to be a part of the human condition to want to enhance or alter your existential experience, to explore your deeper selves or maximize your potential. Brain hacking—or bio-hacking, as it is called—is claimed to do more than make you feel better and improve cognition. Some research suggests it is useful in treating a range of problems, from A.D.H.D. to chronic pain to stroke recovery. It has been used for lucid dreaming, language learning, enhancing creativity, test taking and virtual sniper training. Last week I heard an interview on PBS NewsHour with John Robison, author of “Switched On,” a book about his experience treating his own autism with tDCS. I also discovered an enlightening podcast from Radiolab called “9 Volt Nirvana.” There are hundreds of YouTube videos documenting people’s experiences with tDCS.

I am reminded of Timothy Leary’s promotion of L.S.D. for therapeutic purposes or the use of ecstasy to recover from trauma—even medical marijuana. Some do think these practices are crazy, so your fear is not unfounded. I imagine your friends’ fears would be for your health and safety, as are mine. They might also wonder if tDCS has addictive qualities. Being relatively new, we don’t know the answer to that question, or if using it has negative side effects. The Radiolab podcast pondered: If a person can simply strap electrodes to his or her head and feel significantly better, could the practice lead to an absence of gratitude for pleasant feelings when they occur naturally? And hence, an addiction to the act?

Regarding your fear of sharing your discovery, I suggest you apply the same bravery mustered when you first attached electrodes to your head. The people who love and care for you will have the same trepidation you felt. I recommend you arm yourself with information and resources to answer the inevitable questions. With compassion for yourself and those who love you—and with respect for the unknown aspects of tDCS and the mysterious nature of our brains—I urge you to share your discovery. 

In the future, bio-hacking may be as common as cell phones, and you will have been one of the folks building your own device at home. In the meantime, proceed with caution and keep “feeling wonderful”! 


Ms. Magpie


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