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Batteryface

To some people, batteries are used to power electronics. To others, they’re the next wave of transportation. To some, they’re for strapping to your face to reach hitherto unparalleled levels of mental capacity.

I may need to rewind somewhat.

There’s a quote from the actor Guy Pearce playing the character Peter Weyland from the Alien franchise: “21st century: biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission and M-theory and that was just the first decade…which leads to an obvious conclusion…we are the gods now”.

It was perfect. I couldn’t sum up the Transhumanist movement any better if I tried. Here was a group of people insisting without a shadow of a doubt that humanity had ascended to some mystical realm of immortality but without anything to back it up except pipe dreams and popsci articles.

It was a noble sentiment, but decades too early. Self-driving cars were a twinkle in Google’s eye. CRISPR wasn’t common parlance. Drones were still weapons of war instead of ski accessories. But good god if there’s anything I’ve learned from growing up on the internet it’s that you can’t let facts get in the way of a good narrative.

 

If civilisation isn’t actually gleaming spires and hovercars, though, what other ways are there to fuel one’s own delusions?

Well, you know what Gandhi said: be the ascendant hyperbeing you want to see in the world. From what I could tell there were three different routes.

The first and most common is the self-helpers. They’d wake up everyday, look in the mirror, chant some affirmations, make a list and Get Things Done©. All standard stuff that even non-Transhumanists were into.

The second were the Nootropicists, the successors to the college Ritalin glut of the late 00s. These were people that believed the path to a greater being, what they called “God mode”, was an expensive “stack” of drugs that they took every morning.

The third route, however, was a different beast entirely. This was a path for the bravest of the brave. These noble souls trod the path nobody else dared to tread—Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS): the path of connecting a 9V battery to your temples and running electricity through your brain. It sounds stupid, and it is. It sounds dangerous, it’s that too. It sounds unreal; it’s very, very real. Hear me out though.

Neurons: we all have them. These are the cells that make up your brain and nervous system. They work on electricity, too. Each neuron experiences a certain amount of voltage across it, and when that voltage reaches a particular threshold, it “fires”, temporarily shooting the voltage way up and passing that on down its tendrils to its nearest neighbours. The good folks in the tDCS movement saw this phenomenon and thought: “A-ha! So if the voltage makes the neuron fire, then why not ambiently increase the voltage across the brain so that neurons are more likely to fire and do their thing?”

It was pretty sound logic, and based in genuine anatomical fact, but most tDCS proponents didn’t have access to the kind of fancy lab equipment required to make it happen in a safe and controlled manner. Pioneers were forced to make their own rigs—ringed devices that sat like a crown of electrical thorns on the heads of these prophets among men.

All that was needed initially was a way to hook a 9V battery up to the skull, since then things have got rather more advanced. The so-called “Brain Hackers” now opt for signal generation devices to pump their brains with particular voltage routines designed to do all sorts of wonderful things.

Ultimate focus, curing depression, limitless memory and recall speed: there was nothing these devices couldn’t do. Never ones to miss out on a profitable opportunity, the Kickstarter experts swooped in to create flashy but largely inadequate consumer devices. The most notorious of these was the so-called “Foc.us”, a device so flashy and promising that its broad failure to provide a satisfactory consumer experience has warranted a permanent sticky warning post on the Reddit tCDS community.

Let’s be clear. It’s not a good idea to run electricity through your head without knowing what you’re doing. As the common parlance in the community goes: “You can be killed by a 9V battery”, but are there not pioneers throughout history who put themselves at high risk for the greater good of humanity? Bridge construction workers, army doctors, great navigators, people who run a voltage through their brain to think more gooder. These are the heroes that drag us kicking and screaming into our glorious future, right?

Well maybe, but maybe there’s a path to the future that doesn’t involve posting images of your burnt and cratered skin to the internet asking people not to use an undocumented Kickstarter product.

→ Need to stimulate the brain with something other than direct currents? Why not sign up to Hacking Finance’s If You Read One Thing for that weekly spark

Photo from Brainstorm, Cliff Robertson, 1983. ©MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

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