When it Pays to Zap the Brain

How would you like to increase your brainpower? All you need is a 9-volt battery, some mad scientists, and a heaping portion of creativity.

So says a slew of recent studies using a noninvasive, neuroscientific technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Think of tDCS as the ultimate symphony conductor. It can pep up certain brain regions by exciting neuronal impulses. But it can also quiet a crowd of neurons by decreasing their firing rate. A 9-volt battery powers the electrodes that rest on people’s scalps, giving people a slight twinge as the equipment increases or decreases their brain activity.

In one study, Air Force pilots who received frequent tDCS stimulation, compared with those who didn’t, learned more information in less time. But tDCS isn’t merely a way to learn better. It can help people cope with upsetting situations. In a pair of papers, my colleagues and I showed that stimulating a brain region that aids emotion regulation reduced rejection-related distress and aggression.

To succeed, people need some combination of talent, grit, and luck. Should a personal brain zapping machine get added to the list?