WE live in an age of self-improvement.
Women can have their breasts enhanced. Men can get a silicon six-pack implanted under the skin of their abdomen. (Be warned: this does not look good on a slightly tubby gentleman. I’ve seen pictures.)
Anybody with enough space on their credit card can acquire disconcertingly white teeth.
But heaven forbid we might actually have to do the hard work required to get a real six-pack.
And why get off the couch or decline the extra fries if you can get rid of a few excess kilos with liposuction?
It’s not just physical improvement we crave.
I’ve written about neuroenhancement before: the various pharmacological and other methods people may employ in an attempt to boost cognitive performance.
Forget reading Anna Karenina or taking an evening class in astronomy. Who has time for that when you can buy better brain power on the internet?
Actually, it may not even cost you very much because, as I discovered last week, it’s easy and cheap to build your own transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) device at home.
According to an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, “the do-it-youself (DIY) community has become galvanised by reports that tDCS can be used as an all-purpose cognitive enhancer”.
Now that’s a whole new use for the backyard shed.
Apparently, all you need is a 9-volt battery, around $50 worth of standard electronic bits and pieces and some basic instructions (and, happily, YouTube is there to help on that front).
It’s hard to know how many people are actually doing this, though there’s a lot of discussion in online forums, with people seeking advice on settings and placement of the electrodes.
I guess you could argue that anybody prepared to deliver an electrical current into their brain using a device they’ve cobbled together from things they picked up at the hardware shop is in need of some degree of cognitive enhancement.
That’s not to say tCDS is without value. According to the Journal of Medical Ethics paper, the technique is being trialled as a treatment for stroke, pain and depression and there is evidence it may enhance cognitive performance in healthy people, including working memory and numerical competence.
In fact, the authors write, tCDS “seems poised to radically change our ability to manipulate brain activity”, much as functional magnetic resonance imaging has revolutionised the measurement of that activity.
Both techniques offer versatility without a high degree of resolution, prompting the Canadian neuroethicist authors to describe them as “the Swiss Army knives of human neuroscience”.
So is taking a Swiss Army knife to your brain a good idea?
Well, clearly not outside a controlled clinical environment.
The paper identifies some of the risks associated with self-administration of what is, in the right hands, a relatively safe technique: incorrect placement of electrodes, possible interactions with psychoactive medication or recreational drugs, and the possibility of unintended effects, including long-term changes to an individual’s neurobiology.
To give just one example: if a left-handed person follows instructions designed for the right-handed majority, they could end up stimulating an entirely different part of the brain from the one they’d targeted.
Ultimately, though, there’s not much anyone can do to protect people from themselves.
It’s not as though we could put 9-volt batteries on the restricted list.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.