You Can't Really Get Smarter by Zapping Your Head With Electricity, Can You?

The quest to build better people.
April 1 2013 2:30 PM

Spark of Genius

A new technology promises to supercharge your brain with electricity. Is it too good to be true?

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“The list of design flaws in human beings is pretty long, as it is in other organisms, and so to think that somehow we're at the summit of perfection and that we're stable is to have the wrong idea of human nature. The misleading assumption is that if we don't interfere, we're going to continue the way we are, and of course that goes completely contrary to everything we know about evolution. In fact it might turn out that the only way to prevent us from going extinct, or to prevent some great worsening of our condition, is to enhance some of our capacities.”

I’m skeptical of a lot of the advertised merits of tDCS as a wonder tool for cognitive enhancement. After all, the modern field is still young, and it’s always easier to get research published and publicized if a result is dramatic. Already one study has cast doubt on the use of “sham” stimulation as an effective control for tDCS experiments. Perhaps it will take a backlash like the one against ADHD drugs to spur studies that debunk some of the more outlandish positive results.

But we should resist the urge to demonize either technology just because they feel wrong, or like cheating, and so to close the door to progress. What if it turns out that something like a tDCS “thinking cap,” goofy as it sounds, could not only make us sharper but help us to exercise greater self-control or make better decisions under pressure? Is that really possible? Would it be safe? Let’s find out! And until then, I’ll join the chorus: Kids, don’t try this at home.