This article first appeared in the Havok Journal on 8 August 2014.
When I first learned about a new experimental technique, Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS), I was interested, then… saddened. The Pentagon ordered this research to increase alertness in service members, to cut training time, and to sharpen reaction time.
TDCS is the delivery of a mild electrical current to the brain. It was reported that as soon as five days after the TDCS there were structural changes to the brain, noticed by MRI brain scans. The findings have shown that this procedure can accelerate learning. The studies have also found that TDCS can give a 6x base line increase in brain waves associated with sensory stimulation. This shows that TDCS increases cerebral cortex excitability, which in turn increases arousal to sensory input.
Increased alertness, learning ability, and reaction time are all qualities that are desired by everyone, especially the military. Coffee and energy drinks have side effects that do not produce the results desired by the Pentagon; they want more.
So did the Germans in WWII, so they used a methamphetamine-based drug called Pervitin. Letters have been found from soldiers, including Nobel Prize in literature winner Heinrich Boll, writing home for the “alertness aid” Pervitin. Boll’s letter dated May 20, 1940, contains a request:
“Perhaps you could obtain some more Pervitin for my supplies?” He claims that they were as effective at keeping him awake as several cups of coffee, and helped him temporarily forget the trials and terrors of war.” (Fischer-Zernin, 2013).
It is interesting that Pervitin was issued the same way as general supplies were in the 1930’s, as confidence has been expressed that the TDCS research being conducted now could result in a pair of electrodes becoming standard issue to American service members in less than five years.
Dr. Andy McKinley, a biomedical engineer who oversees TDCS research at the Air Force Research Laboratory, says he wants to help make the United States fighting force the best in the world. He has seen both positive and negative feedback from the public about this study. The negative is usually because people relate it to Electro-convulsive Therapy, which is used for treating depression, but uses higher amounts of electricity.
The research has not yet shown if the TDCS can be addictive, if it releases the same chemicals that are released during ‘fight or flight’ responses, or if it will take higher amounts of electrical stimulation over repeated use to achieve the desired level of awareness. Also of concern, when one part of the brain is performing higher than the norm for that individual, will another area of the brain be affected?
Dr. Andy McKinley is an amazing researcher, and is devoted to helping the United States military be the best they can be. I look at the work and heartfelt devotion of Dr. McKinley in the same respect that I do Albert Einstein. Einstein, known for the equation that led to the atomic bomb, also faced an ethical dilemma just as Dr. McKinley does in his research that falls into the newly emerging science of human enhancement.
The question remains, what will the United States and other countries do with this knowledge? What will the long-term effects of TDCS be? Here is what Einstein had to say on the subject of his own research:
“I believe America may totally succumb to the fearful militarization which engulfed Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. There is real danger that political power and the power to influence the minds of people will pass increasingly into the hands of the military, which is used to approaching all political problems from the point of view of military expediency. Because of America’s supremacy, the military point of view is forced upon the world.” –Einstein, 1945.
‘’I am badly in need of encouragement. I have the impression that our nation has gone mad and is no longer open to reasonable suggestions.” –Einstein, 1950.
Our bodies were created from a combination of genes that make each human unique. Just as an individual’s genetic code determines PTSD severity, it also determines the homeostasis of the whole body. Why speed up a human mind when it was built to do its best at a certain level? At the mind’s ‘best’ it won’t harm other areas of the body or mind.
A question naturally arises: before resorting to experimenting with individuals’ minds, have all the natural means been exhausted? Eliminating gluten and sugar, higher fitness standards, stimulating brain games, or any of the other natural remedies that affect our alertness levels should be fully explored and implemented before more radical techniques are considered.
Other important questions come to mind as well. How involved will citizens and soldiers be as TDCS and related experiments continue? Will they take a stand against the military taking control of the processes of the brain? Or will the public see this as yet another advancement; another way to go faster, longer, and with greater accuracy? Does the mind go at a certain pace to allow for reflection, even if it’s a millisecond? If we increase the mind unnaturally, do we lose that human element of reflection?
I say, improve the technology already being used before resorting to newer, more dangerous ones. Improve current technology so humans can handle using it with out attaching electrodes to their brains. Messing with the human mind can achieve the task at hand, but create more problems than our scientists can cure.
TDCS seems more like a short-term fix, and we all know that short-term fixes aren’t usually the best long-term solution.
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Air Force stimulates brain waves to improve performance of drone operators – The Boston Globe. (n.d.). BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2014/02/18/air-force-stimulates-brain-waves-improve-performance-drone-operators/V8ZG5DEYze4lCoGlloq14H/story.html
Amping Up Brain Function: Transcranial Stimulation Shows Promise in Speeding Up Learning. (n.d.). Scientific American Global RSS. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/amping-up-brain-function/
Military testing low-level electric brain shocks to keep troops awake . (n.d.). NY Daily News. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/military-testing-low-level-electric-shocks-troops-awake-article-1.1618339
ALBERT EINSTEIN – peace people. (n.d.). ALBERT EINSTEIN – peace people. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://www.ppu.org.uk/people/einstein.html
Uncovered Nazi Letters Reveal Hitler Used Crystal Meth to Keep Soldiers Awake On the Front Lines. (n.d.). Mic. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from http://mic.com/articles/46555/uncovered-nazi-letters-reveal-hitler-used-crystal-meth-to-keep-soldiers-awake-on-the-front-lines