December 19, 2017

Brain Zapping: Why I Use tDCS


Let’s be clear:  What I’m talking about is NOT medical advice, this is just what I’ve explored.  If you choose to use some kind of tDCS device, you need to do your own research and take full responsibility for your actions.  Do this only under medical supervision.

On my most productive mornings I move through my morning ritual smoothly, deeply experiencing each moment, enjoying the anticipation of what comes next, and finishing the upward line of productivity by plugging my brain into a 9 volt battery.

Brain plugged in to a 9 volt battery, tdcs

Yep, a battery.  See, a while ago I stumbled across this idea of tDCS, or Trans-cranial Direct Current Stimulation.  It’s an idea and practice that’s been around for years.  The core idea is that you add literal power to your brain and your brain works better.

Slightly more accurately, you run low power (9 volts) through electrodes that you place on your head to excite certain physical parts of the brain that we think are related to different aspects of our experience, from focus to happiness, and then whatever work you put in while receiving this power gets amplified.

It’s been tested by DARPA, which is the US government’s experimental research program on the hunt for new technologies that’ll give our military an edge, and they found that using it could increase focus and attention span.

I spoke with their program manager about it in a podcast a while back, and after that call she and I talked further about what I could do in the realm of personal application of tDCS.

While DARPA used it to train analysts to see details in satellite images, I use it to help focus my mind in the morning while I write, and to be a better paraglider.  I think it gives me the ancillary (but very important to me) benefit of being happier.

Electricity going to a brain going to a hand holding a pencil

Wait, you say.  You’re zapping your brain with a 9 volt?  Are you crazy?  Can you tell me how it works again?  I didn’t quite get that.


Imagine your brain as being made up of a ton of different networks.  There’s one that runs your heartbeat, one that controls your breathing, one that helps monitor blood pressure, and a few million more that control and direct all the more complicated things; reading, understanding, loving, managing emotions, etc.

Brain heart and lungs all connected electrically

Each network requires a certain amount of power.  For you engineers, we’re going to skip past watts and amps and volts and just speak in laymen’s terms.  Relax.

Running the brain is normally a zero-sum game.  If you add power to one aspect, you have to take it from somewhere else.  It’s a closed system.  Want to think harder?  Borrow power from somewhere else, but there’s an upper limit, because you have to pull resources from other important networks, like the ones that control your breath.

Yes, I’m using broad strokes.  The brain isn’t quite that simple, and we don’t totally understand it.  Still, it’s useful for this line of thought to think of it in this way, as a closed system.

tDCS is how we crack it open. 

Pouring electricity into a brain, tdcs

Now, we’ll go a little deeper into how the world works, so strap on your comprehension cap and pay attention.

A few years back when I lived in Indiana, I bought a 1965 Ford F-100 truck.  It didn’t have power-anything.  No power windows, no power brakes, and definitely no power steering.  It took concerted physical effort to turn the wheel; a system endearingly called “Armstrong Steering”.

While I could drive that truck anywhere and I never had an issue with not being strong enough to make a turn, it did take extra effort just to drive.

I now drive a 2004 Toyota pickup that does have power steering; I can make a complete U-turn with just a few fingers worth of effort.

Using tDCS to improve my focus is a lot like driving with power steering.  Driving with power steering doesn’t make me a NASCAR driver, it just makes driving far easier for me. 

It’s the same thing with tDCS; thinking and writing has never been difficult for me, it’s just much easier and more productive when I add a little bit of power to that “thinking” part of my brain.

Ok, so now you’re excited about this and ready to just tape a 9 volt to your head and jump in the bath.  Slow down, tiger.  Definitely don’t do that.

In order to get different effects (increased focus or concentration, treating depression, etc) you’ll need to focus power on different parts of your head.  You’ll use electrodes, which are just sponges attached to a wire, placed on your head and secured with a hat or elastic fabric.

tdcs montage placement guide


Let’s be clear:  What I’m talking about is NOT medical advice, this is just what I’ve explored.  If you choose to use some kind of tDCS device, you need to do your own research and take full responsibility for your actions.  Do this only under medical supervision.

The placement pattern of those electrodes is called a “montage”.  You can Google “DARPA montage” to see how they ran it, or you can go to this site to get ideas for treating depression, increasing creativity, or accelerate memorization.   

Here’s the device that I plug a 9 volt battery into.  Now you have almost all the information that I do and can go off and explore the world of brain zapping.  It’s not safe, or approved, or backed up with thousands of studies, but it’s fun and for me, it works.

The zap me button, tdcs

Happy zapping!

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Nik Hawks


Nik Hawks helps run the show at Paleo Treats. Fascinated by humans in all their strange glory, Nik is harnessed in and pulling hard in pursuit of excellence with the rest of the PT Crew. Enjoy!

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