A buyer's guide to brain scans.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
April 23 2004 5:29 PM

How To Hack Your Head

A buyer's guide to recreational brain scanning.

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For years, brain-imaging technologies have been dedicated to medical pursuits, such as finding brain tumors or pinpointing stroke damage. But practically every other day now you read stories about brain scans being used for less than life-or-death pursuits: scanning the brain activity of people as they watch TV sitcoms or think about soft drinks. On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a front-page story about a study that analyzed the brains of political partisans as they viewed Kerry and Bush campaign ads. If you thought Googling for yourself was the sign of a self-obsessed culture, get ready for the personal brain scan.

Read enough of these stories, and you wonder what would happen if you put your own brain under the scanner. What unique configuration in your cerebral cortex would be revealed under such scrutiny? What telltale pattern of firing neurons would you discover? As it turns out, you don't need to volunteer yourself for a research study to get a glimpse of the inner life of your brain. As part of the research for my latest book, Mind Wide Open,I sampled most of the technologies available today. Some of these tools gaze directly into your brain, while others follow more oblique paths to gauge your state of mind. You can buy some of them for around $100 and have them up and running in five minutes. Others either require you to get an advanced degree, or to befriend someone who already has one. What follows is a consumer guide to getting your head examined, roughly arranged by ease-of-use and accessibility.

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Biofeedback. One of the oldest technologies for peering inside your brain involves an indirect route through the body. Biofeedback uses special sensors to track information about your heart rate or the "galvanic skin response" of your fingers and palms. Increases in these levels are a telltale sign of an agitated, amped-up mental state. Lower levels suggest states of deep relaxation and calm. The premise behind biofeedback is not just to track this information, but to make it visible to you in real-time, usually via a computer screen. By seeing this extra layer of feedback, you can learn to recognize and control what are usually unconscious processes. One of the first uses for biofeedback during its initial heyday in the '70s was helping meditators reach more profound states of tranquility.

Search for biofeedback online and you'll find an entire universe of gadgets, most of them marketed by small, New Agey startups with names like Bionetica and Calmlink. Journey to Wild Divine, the most consumer-friendly product in the field, is part biofeedback device and part video game. Wild Divine lets you navigate a Myst-like virtual world, filled with the obligatory tests and puzzles that have to be completed to advance to the next level. The twist is that you don't solve the puzzles by typing on the keyboard or clicking the mouse; you solve them by changing your heart rate or your GSR. The game comes with three sensors that you wear as rings around your fingers and that plug into the USB port on your PC. The more relaxed you get, the better you are at the game.

Pros: A videogame that's good for your soul, and relatively cheap, too.

Cons: Not a direct vista into brain activity; very hard to play on coffee.

What You'll Learn: Wild Divine will likely make you more aware of subtle shifts in your overall sense of calm and potentially help you to seek out states that you find more rewarding.

Cost: $159.95, assuming you've got a computer to play it on.

Neurofeedback. A variation of biofeedback that looks directly at your brain's activity, neurofeedback tracks brain waves that can be detected by an electrode placed on the surface of the skull. At any given moment, millions of neurons in your brain are building up tiny electric charges and then releasing neurotransmitters, which indirectly transmit the voltage to other neurons via their axons. This neuronal communication happens in unison, creating a collective rhythm that generates waves of electrical activity. Researchers have identified a half dozen or so distinct wave states, each associated with a certain mode of consciousness. For example, one called Delta appears in non-REM sleep; Alpha is associated with states of relaxation; Beta often indicates a focused brain; and Theta usually suggests a more scattered frame of mind.

As in biofeedback, the neurofeedback tools project the information about your brain's activity onto some kind of real-time display, which helps you to push your brain into desired states. The inventor Ray Kurzweil has funded research into neurofeedback tools that encourage trancelike Alpha states, while a number of startups and attention experts have explored using neurofeedback to treat ADD. Some athletes and performance gurus trying to get their heads "in the zone" swear by a device called the Peak Achievement Trainer that conceals a band of sensors inside an ordinary-looking visor, allowing you to get brain wave data while touching up your PowerPoint presentation or working on your putting stroke. 

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