As a doctor working in the fields of Digital and Cognitive Humanities, a great deal of my research focuses on digital culture, particularly on how people read online and with e-readers, and what effects this might have on them, especially when they’re young and impressionable and retain a love for what the world has to offer.
Science makes its way into what I want to explore because digital texts are archly scientific things, high-technology that’s been made, often, somehow, to feel like a toy. What interests me is how people have become scared of e-readers and e-reading, and of digital technology in general. And why shouldn’t they be? With a Daily Mail article each week on how Facebook and Twitter and videogames are changing our brains for the worse, it’s easy to see why.
Although, for the record, they absolutely are. It’s called neuroplasticity – a great word for how our brains fundamentally change their structure in response to our activities. And it’s not just the Internet: everything changes our brains. If you go blind and learn how to read braille eventually your visual cortex will start to be cannibalised by other areas so that your fingertips become more sensitive. If you use your mobile phone all the time then your brain devotes more space to how your thumbs work. Basically, the only way to avoid changes in the brain, the “rewiring” that we keep being warned about, is to deny yourself all exciting stimulus (which might actually be the function of the Daily Mail website). So, although my research is focused on digital culture, science finds its way into my work periodically, and allows me to say that I work in the fields of Digital and Cognitive Humanities.
I’m interested in how digital culture as a whole is scientifically aware in general, and how it extends this awareness to Cognitive Science. Read any popular internet culture, technology, or futurist online magazine or blog, like Wired, or Boing Boing, or io9, and you can’t help but be struck by the broad range of knowledge that is taken for granted by main articles and comments sections alike. An impending Singularity, where a greater-than-human artificial intelligence emerges along with its inevitable fallout, for instance, is taken as banal knowledge in many arenas of mainstream internet culture, as is the uncanny valley of near-human imitation in robotics, or flow states of creativity, and a hundred other examples of popular and hard-scientific theory.
So not only is Cognitive Neuroscience a great way-in to discussing the changes that occur in a move from page to screen, or in the kinds of media and environments that we encounter there, it’s also an essential part of the substrate of the culture that’s to be investigated.
Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation, or tDCS is a process that’s getting a lot of attention at the moment in both academic Psychology and internet and technology culture, the latter in particular because of the popular reporting of DARPA’s (America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) apparent success with using tDCS to halve the training time of its drone pilots.
tDCS is the passing of a direct current through the brain between two externally attached electrodes. What makes it so appealing is that a) theoretically all it takes is a 9 volt battery and two wires and b) it promises a harmless way to hack your brain to perform better, which is way safer than, for instance, using drugs such as Aderall or Ritalin to boost performance.
In a 2008 poll of Nature readers, 20% of 1500 respondents had used drugs for cognitive enhancement, and Wired magazine dedicated two substantial articles to investigating the widespread use of cognitive enhancements on American university campuses, detailing the various drug regimens of its readers. With the tDCS literature suggesting potential for improvements in mood, attention, motor learning, and creativity, after several thousand painless and safe clinical trials it’s clear that if the procedure comes even close to its promise then it will find a growing audience outside of the lab as drug-based neural enhancements have prepared the field.
The theory of tDCS, as it’s disseminated most frequently online, goes: by passing 9 volts through various bits of your brain you’ll get better at doing things. This can lead to some cathode and anode placements that would make any tDCS researcher wince, and if you are looking to Do It Yourself, you really are spoilt for choice with online videos of people passing current through various points on their skulls.
The theory as it appears in the academic literature is more like: much evidence is still technically anecdotal, many results may be down to a placebo effect. Where there has been demonstrable improvement in performance we’re not sure why, and we’re not sure what’s being acted upon or what the long term effects might be. More is known all the time, of course, and there’s certainly a lot of promise for tDCS being therapeutic or even enhancing. But from a digital cultures standpoint there are two very interesting phenomena: first is the continuation of a hacking culture passing from software, to hardware, to the wet-ware of the brain and body (so called “bio-hacking” or, more broadly, transhumanism), and second is how information on this topic is being passed around.
The amateur tDCS literature is an amalgam of shared academic .pdfs, popular blog posts, tech magazine reports, YouTube videos, and internet mail-order parts. Aspects of the digital world at all levels, from file-sharing to eBay, come together in producing this phenomenon emerging from a previously academy-led field of research.
Self-experimentation is in no way exclusive to the digital age; it stretches back throughout the history of scientific research. In notes taken around 1665, we can read Isaac Newton’s comments and diagrams for his experiment on what it’s like to insert a needle between your eye and its socket in terms of the shapes and colours that you can produce. People have long played with the limits of their experience, but the discussion of science and experimentation are, I think, uniquely widespread at this moment through an increasingly democratised discussion taking place in a republic of digital letters.
tDCS certainly caught my attention through these channels, through blogs and videos rather than academic papers, but rather than reaching for a spare battery I volunteered as a lab guinea-pig. Over the Summer a PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham shot at my head with an electromagnet until she made my hand twitch, then marked the point that she’d found on my scalp with her eyeliner, apparently having found my motor cortex. She then passed 1.5ma of steady current between two saline-soaked sponges, one above my left eye and one at this discovered point, while I tried to master a new motor skill and she monitored the results. Apparently I got a bit better when I was being zapped.
What’s interesting to me is that I only wanted to do all of this because I read a blog post and then watched a video of an American guy in his early twenties try to gently electrocute himself in his front room.
My point is that the reporting of amateur and professional tDCS trials online is changing the way that people see opportunities for improving themselves, changing the public perception of what Cognitive Neuroscience has to offer neuro-typical healthy subjects, and changing the beliefs in how information on such topics should rightly be disseminated. New ways of looking at the world change what we think we can do, as well as our perception of the world itself, and how it operates and can be operated in. We now live in a world where science can be reduced to things which feel like toys, but strangely it’s often when things become boring, neutral, or mundane, that they can start to have their deepest effects.