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Getting Smarter

Small, targeted electric shocks to the brain have been shown to sharpen cognitive faculties. Would you plug yourself in?


Photo: Jay R. Brooks (

You could be mere milliamps away from a better mind.

If you’re anything like me, you’re pounding bad coffee right now — just one wretched mugful after another — trying your darnedest to stay alert and focused.

What if there was a better way to augment performance, one that didn’t involve beans and filters and trembling hands? What if all you had to do was plug your brain into a power outlet for an instant IQ hike?

“Humbug!” you say? “Science fiction!” you say? Swallow another mouthful of slag and keep reading.


According to researchers at Oxford University, small jolts of electricity to the brain can boost a wide range of mental abilities, from math and language skills to learning and hand-eye coordination.

The technique is called transcranial direct current stimulation (or tDCS for short) and, in case you’re concerned, it isn’t nearly as aggressive as it sounds.

A couple of electrode pads are placed on the outside of the head and then hooked up to a machine that delivers a piddling 1 – 2 milliamps to subjects’ neurons, making them fire more easily, which, in turn, makes the brain function more efficiently.

What’s more, the procedure is completely painless, and, at least so far, there have been no negative side effects.

Christmas List 2020?

Of course, it will probably be awhile before a consumer-grade brain shocker becomes available for purchase at your local Mac store. More testing and discussion will be needed to better establish tDCS’s safety and efficacy, not to mention its ethicality.

When and if it does hit retail shelves, though, you can bet there’s gonna be a long line.

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Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can be found outside exploring.

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