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[LINK] Shutting down the destructive internal monologue through transcranial direct current stimulation

18 Post author: NancyLebovitz 22 February 2012 11:18AM

Fast track to pure focus

Weisend, who is working on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme to accelerate learning, has been using this form of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers. From the electrodes, a 2-milliamp current will run through the part of my brain associated with object recognition - an important skill when visually combing a scene for assailants.

...

Mysteriously, however, these long-term changes also seem to be preceded by a feeling that emerges as soon as the current is switched on and is markedly similar to the flow state. "The number one thing I hear people say after tDCS is that time passed unduly fast," says Weisend. Their movements also seem to become more automatic; they report calm, focused concentration - and their performance improves immediately.

...

The journalist goes from

I'm close to tears behind my thin cover of sandbags as 20 screaming, masked men run towards me at full speed, strapped into suicide bomb vests and clutching rifles. For every one I manage to shoot dead, three new assailants pop up from nowhere. I'm clearly not shooting fast enough, and panic and incompetence are making me continually jam my rifle.

My salvation lies in the fact that my attackers are only a video, projected on screens to the front and sides. It's the very simulation that trains US troops to take their first steps with a rifle, and everything about it has been engineered to feel like an overpowering assault. But I am failing miserably. In fact, I'm so demoralised that I'm tempted to put down the rifle and leave.

to

I simply begin to take out attacker after attacker. As twenty of them run at me brandishing their guns, I calmly line up my rifle, take a moment to breathe deeply, and pick off the closest one, before tranquilly assessing my next target.

In what seems like next to no time, I hear a voice call out, "Okay, that's it." The lights come up in the simulation room and one of the assistants at Advanced Brain Monitoring, a young woman just out of university, tentatively enters the darkened room.

In the sudden quiet amid the bodies around me, I was really expecting more assailants, and I'm a bit disappointed when the team begins to remove my electrodes. I look up and wonder if someone wound the clocks forward. Inexplicably, 20 minutes have just passed. "How many did I get?" I ask the assistant.

She looks at me quizzically. "All of them."

...

Zapping your brain with a small current seems to improve everything from mathematical skills to marksmanship, but for now your best chance of experiencing this boost is to sign up for a lab experiment. Machines that provide transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) cost £5000 a pop, and their makers often sell them only to researchers.

That hasn't stopped a vibrant community of DIY tDCS enthusiasts from springing up. Their online forums are full of accounts of their home-made experiments, including hair-curling descriptions of blunders that, in one case, left someone temporarily blind.

Comments (22)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 22 February 2012 12:03:31PM *  3 points [-]

LW users reporting injecting cold water into their ear - LW users reporting this experiment = LW users who have electrocuted themselves.

EDIT: Fixed the formula.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 23 February 2012 07:51:59PM 2 points [-]

I think you made a sign error there...

Comment author: Emile 22 February 2012 10:16:52PM 0 points [-]

Previous post where tDCS was discussed; there's also a dedicated subreddit.

Seems the crazy LessWrongers in Austin planned to try it, but I don't know the result.

Comment author: ryjm 23 February 2012 03:22:18AM 0 points [-]

There was also a very detailed comment thread on Hacker News - someone claimed to have built one from 30$ in parts.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 February 2012 07:56:55PM 3 points [-]

Shockingly, it didn't seem to make much of a difference in improving n-back results. That seems to be the current consensus (I don't think the others would put up much resistance to my saying this.)

Comment author: Vaniver 23 February 2012 10:21:31PM 6 points [-]

Yeah, I've been very busy and haven't posted our results yet, so I might as well post preliminary ones here.

We had five people doing Dual N-Back; everyone did it for ~40 minutes to an hour in three sessions. The control group just did three sessions; the experimental group did a session, applied the electrodes, did a session, removed the electrodes, and then did a final session.

The control group showed minor improvement from session to session. Both experimental subjects showed a minor decline under current application which reversed after the current was removed. The other guy didn't notice much originally, I reported that I felt less interested in doing DNB under current, and found the data suggested my ability declined; he analyzed his data and agreed it was probably a negative effect.

Our equipment was poor, though. I'm pretty sure we should have used EEG electrodes, and instead used TENS electrodes (used for muscle stimulation) which are way bigger- which probably had some effect. We were working off a 10-20 diagram, but none of us are trained technicians for this sort of thing.

So, the takeaway for me was that this does have the power to change things, but getting that change to be positive is nontrivial. I'm planning on investing more in equipment (we can get proper electrodes and a placement cap for $70, whereas the electrodes I bought were around $4 a person) and repeating (with me, at least; I don't know how many other people are willing to shell that out). Once I do that, I'll write that up.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 24 February 2012 05:35:20PM 0 points [-]

Also, doing a sniper game might use different mental faculties than dual n back.

That particular tTCS might or might not work as well if the people who you were supposed to shoot or not shoot changed according to complex rules.

Comment author: Vaniver 24 February 2012 07:31:02PM *  0 points [-]

Also, doing a sniper game might use different mental faculties than dual n back.

Right. tDCS has a number of parameters you can vary, of which the most obvious are location of electrodes and polarity of electrodes. We were trying to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, done by running a current across two scalp locations; the article mentions temple and arm placements that I don't think I saw elsewhere in the literature (but have the equipment to try that out, so I think I shall!).

The polarity is the other huge thing- if cathodal stimulation lowers the polarization and that helps, then anodal stimulation should raise the polarization and that should hurt. (One of the early proposed therapeutic uses was putting the brakes on brain areas that were overactive in negative ways, like anxiety regions.) It's very possible that we screwed up and misread the paper and applied the voltage in the wrong way, and if we swapped it around it would help.

Comment author: orlin1 27 February 2012 07:07:10PM 1 point [-]

Some posible problems:

what type of device did you used ?

current?

current density of electrodes?

refference electrode position?

use EEG or TENS electrodes is bad idea they have wrong current density and resistence and dnagerous electrochemial products

use saline soaked electrodes of right current density

http://brmlab.cz/project/brain_hacking/tdcs http://www.longecity.org/forum/topic/50076-tdcs-thread/page__st__30__gopid__503859#entry503859

Comment author: MileyCyrus 23 February 2012 06:05:28AM 1 point [-]

Seems like it would be better to use Berka's nuerofeedback device (mentioned in the article). That way you could train yourself to reach the alpha-state without using electricity.

Comment author: vi21maobk9vp 24 February 2012 06:37:59AM 0 points [-]

Does it make people perform better or worse than shutting down internal monologue simply by will?

Although killing the sense of time can help to make it feel better...

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 24 February 2012 05:37:51PM 1 point [-]

I think it's for shutting down the internal monologue for people who can't do it by will. If you can do it yourself, do you know if shutting down your internal monologue also cuts back on habitual muscle tension?

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 24 February 2012 06:41:18PM *  2 points [-]

I notice that level of internal monologue and tension in my jaw are strongly correlated, and I can affect either by manipulating the other.

Comment author: vi21maobk9vp 25 February 2012 05:00:31PM 0 points [-]

I think no.

Comment author: orlin1 27 February 2012 06:57:29PM 0 points [-]

shutting down internal monologue lower muscle tension by deactivation the negative part of limbic system

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 24 February 2012 11:50:20PM 0 points [-]

shutting down internal monologue simply by will

This is possible? I've never been able to do that, and to be honest, if I thought about it at all I assumed it was impossible; is it a learnable skill?

Comment author: Incorrect 25 February 2012 02:53:28AM *  0 points [-]

I don't use an internal monologue for normal thought, only specific kinds of thinking, especially when I want to remember my thoughts very clearly.

I'm not sure what you guys mean by shut it down. Can't you just stop using it?

Comment author: vi21maobk9vp 25 February 2012 05:01:56PM 0 points [-]

For some people it is the default mode of operation... Not using it is an option, but for me it is uncomfortable enough for selfish me not to shut it down.

Comment author: vi21maobk9vp 25 February 2012 05:14:23PM 0 points [-]

Did you try really hard? I have succeeded on the first try; just didn't like the result.

I didn't really learn it, I just had a few reasons to block some thought direction (impression rehashing gone harmful), and so learned to block. The basic idea is like that: get any idea you can tolerate - imagining literal word "CENSORED" cast in concrete is a fine starting point. When you notice the "blocked" thing occurs, think the "showstopper" thought. If you have multiple background attention threads, fill them with independent copies of the showstopper. Once this becomes nearly a conditional reflex, the blocked thought will wear away because it is never reinforced in actively operating memory. It will stay in passive long-term memory, of course.

A close technique - replacing any attention thread with something easy to shut down and shutting down - allowed me to shut down inner monologue. I got some performance-boosting consequences out of that. While it is hard to say how it felt in real time (I did this precisely to have some excessively repetitive things done while minimising the experience of doing them), retrospect memories of this are quite uncomfortable.

Comment author: army1987 25 February 2012 08:21:21PM *  1 point [-]

Try focusing on your breath, and disregard your thoughts instead of trying to actively block them. (This is some kind of Buddhist meditation whose name I can't remember.) It took some practice at first, but it usually (not always, for some reason) works for me. (Another idea I read somewhere is counting your breaths, but after a while I practised that , I was able to count and think about something else at the same time.)

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 February 2012 08:27:53PM *  0 points [-]

I can shut down my internal monologue by concentrating on some sound from the environment (effectively replacing it).

Comment author: Dmytry 25 February 2012 05:49:48PM *  3 points [-]

Peter Watts is going to love that story. He has zombie soldiers in his work in progress novel.

I kind of tend to enter that sort of calm zombie state at times but its not very easy. The stuff that is interfering is all the other people's god damn worries and neuroses that sort of get inside of you like a disease as you have to be modelling other people (to interact with them) and you have your brain learn all sorts of counter productive patterns that other people do, they frigging invent those patterns in their idleness. I utterly hate how other people's invented neuroses can run in the head (in the internal monologue). (that sort of stuff makes me feel angry... you interact a lot with person that's prone to self handicapping, then you see yourself being self handicapped, easy to see why, your brain been modelling that behaviour on the same brain that you use for everything else)

edit: not that I don't self handicap myself on my own though. But i don't do that on stuff i normally do.