A growing subculture in the UK is blurring the boundaries between man and machine by “hacking” their brains via zapping devices that give them various cognitive boosts. We are becoming more and more intimately engaged with our technology as the 21st century unfolds, so it comes as little surprise that we are beginning to see ourselves as similarly modifiable technology.
The most popular and well-established brain hacking technique is transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which Vladimirov also uses. But he is continually looking for new methods: ultrasound, infrared, magnetic fields.
“I’ve got a variety of devices, some of which are DIY, some of which are sort of half-baked hacker devices, and some of which are industrial,” he says.
They are administered in different ways, including up the nose (the quickest way of accessing some parts of the brain).
“It can be used over different sensory areas to enhance the required sense – that’s how it can be used over, let’s say, speech centres, to enhance one’s speech,” he says.
“And obviously lots of research of this kind has been done in terms of rehabilitation medicine, in terms of recovery.”
There can be unanticipated consequences. When wearing a modified version of the “god helmet” – so called because some who wear it report feeling a “sensed presence” – Vladimirov felt the same effect.
“But that wasn’t pleasant. It was kind of a Grim Reaper,” he says.
“There could be risks which are not accounted for yet, like for instance a reasonably recent publication from (Oxford neuroscientist) Roi Cohen Kadosh which effectively says that if you promote one function you can inhibit another.
“It is a question of acceptable risk. When it comes to those effects some people will say: okay, I accept it.”
Vladimirov offers me a zap of a tDCS device made by a Russian friend of his: 2.5 milliamps straight to the cranium.
The feeling is a very localised pins and needles.
It does not seem to have much effect at first, but after 10 minutes I feel noticeably perkier and am much more talkative – according to Vladimirov, the anode is near my speech centre.
Camilla Nord, a neuroscientist at University College London, is examining whether tDCS might be effective in treating depression, and is using an MRI scanner to see how it affects the brain.