As the electrodes are placed on your head, you wonder what the sensation of electricity running through your brain will feel like. You’re in a bare room that resembles a doctor’s office, but instead of blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, there are wires that run from your head to a box that will be transmitting electricity in just a few moments.
No, you aren’t in the electric chair about to be punished for your crimes, but instead, you are about to undergo Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) to see if you can capture one of its many possible benefits. While this may seem like a fringe, woo-woo treatment only dabbled in by extreme brain biohackers, there have actually been over 3,000 studies done on tDCS .
What Is Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation?
Before we go any further, it would be helpful to know what tDCS is. In short, the therapy involves attaching up to 20 electrodes to various parts of the head depending on which areas of the brain you are trying to target. These electrodes will then emit a weak (.28-.8 mA/cm2) current of electricity across your brain. Sessions typically last between 10-30 minutes and many studies have patients complete around 10 sessions within a two-week period.
As we know, neurons and synapses rely on electricity to pass information to one another, so introducing new electricity can alter this process . This electrical stimulation travels through the brain, modifying connections along the way, the changes sustainable long after treatment. It’s interesting learning about how it works, but you’re probably wondering “why even bother with it?”
Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Can Help You
tDCS For Mental Health
As far-out as tDCS may seem, there are many studies showing a variety of different benefits. First, research has found tDCS to work well for a variety of different psychiatric disorders. A review by Bennabi and Haffen displayed many interesting studies that investigated the effect tDCS had on conditions such as major depressive disorder (MDD).
Worldwide, around 7% of people experience MDD, but many patients fail to see positive results from common pharmaceutical treatment options. However, we know that certain parts of the brain (left prefrontal cortex, for example) in people with MDD aren’t as active as they should be, so in theory, stimulating them with tDCS could help their condition.
Studies On The Effect tDCS Has Regarding Mental Health
In one randomized controlled study, 40 participants with major depression were subjected to 1mA of electricity for 10 minutes over 10 sessions and some promising results followed. After being evaluated using the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and the Beck Depression Inventory, depression was lowered significantly when compared to the control group. A few more studies were carried out by the same scientists and depression was lowered by an average of 40.4% in the tDCS group versus 10.4% for the control.
It has also been found that a combination of tDCS and traditional pharmaceutical treatment worked better than tDCS by itself. However, it hasn’t really been investigated if tDCS and other natural depression treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, or journaling would have a synergistic effect.
From my own research, I know that alternative therapies like the ones I mentioned have been proven to help with anxiety and depression, so I assume combining it with something like tDCS would only enhance its effects. In the US, tDCS remains an experimental treatment for depression but has been adopted in many parts of Europe as a legitimate treatment option.
“this technique has gained renewed interest as a practical tool for the modulation of cortical excitability and the treatment of psychiatric disorders”
tDCS For Boosting Brain Power
tDCS for cognitive enhancement is where you need to be careful as many companies are trying to make a quick buck by claiming that you can strap their device to your head, flick the switch and increase IQ by 50% or something of the sort. While some of these statements are just a money-making scheme, there has been real research showing that tDCS can, in fact, lead to cognitive improvements.
The cognitive enhancing effects have been promising enough for the US Department of Defense to take notice. They even performed their own single-blind study where participants were subjected to 2.0 mA of tDCS for 30 minutes. Electrodes were attached in areas that would stimulate the right frontal and parietal cortex which are involved in learning.
They then underwent a real-world virtual training exercise where participants identify threat-related objects that are concealed in a natural environment. The results? There was a significant improvement in the experimental group’s ability to identify the objects. fMRI also showed increased activity in the brain regions of interest .
“the application of anodal tDCS over these regions can greatly increase learning, resulting in one of the largest effects on learning yet reported. The methods developed here may be useful to decrease the time required to attain expertise in a variety of settings.”
Other studies done in ‘healthy’ people suggest that tDCS can improve working memory, attentional control, decision making, and creativity .
Is Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation For You?
All of the positive research surrounding tDCS means that you should definitely go buy a set for yourself, right? Well, it is a bit more nuanced than that. First, despite a majority of research showing that tDCS does work, it would be disingenuous not to mention that there are a handful of studies in every category showing tDCS has no effect at all.
Furthermore, a lot of research has concluded that the effectiveness of tDCS may heavily rely on individual factors such as personality, genetics, age, and skull thickness. In addition to this, there really are no standard operating procedures when it comes to variables like the number of electrodes, placement of electrodes, electrical current strength, and duration of each session. Much more research needs to be done to solidify these aspects of tDCS.
The Main Takeaway
Although we do need more definitive research, I believe that based on current evidence tDCS can work for many people and serves as a relatively cheap and safe way to improve depression symptoms and cognitive function especially if you are looking for a different therapy route.
Don’t hesitate to do your own research on the therapy and treatment options available to you. Whether you decide to try a DIY tDCS device or consult a therapy center is up to you, but either way, make sure to consult your primary care physician first. All in all, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to try something new.
A video of tDCS self-administration (skip to 1:56):
I’ve heard that many writers, whether it be TV, comedy, or book authors, swear that taking cigarette breaks is a crucial aspect of their writing process. It helps them be more creative, stay focused and remain relaxed. While we all know that smoking is bad, could there be some merit to these proclaimed benefits?
Science shows us that there actually are some cognitive benefits to taking nicotine. There was some conflict between the results of some studies, but I will be talking about the results that a majority of researchers came to. Before we go any further, if you didn’t already know, nicotine is an addictive substance so use it safely and at your own risk.
Maintaining Your Attention
No matter how hard you try to continuously grind away at a task, you have to give up at some point to take a break. Luckily for us, there are many tips and techniques to maintain your attention longer (for another cool way head here) and science has shown that nicotine use is one of them.
How Nicotine Affects the Brain
Many studies have been done on how nicotine affects our brains. In one interesting study, researchers administered a nicotine patch to participants and measured brain activity. Among many other changes, the largest change was a deactivation in the Default Mode Network which is the part of the brain associated with resting brain function .
Normally, we would interpret a deactivation in the brain as a bad thing. We want our brains to be as active as possible, right? Well, it turns out that the Default Mode Network requires a hefty portion of our brains processing power by working in the background. Turning this off allows our brain to put more resources towards the task at hand.
Use Nicotine To Stay Focused
Those same researchers also wanted to test how the nicotine patches affected the participants’ performance in a few standardized tests. Interestingly, nicotine didn’t improve performance early on but DID improve how long the nicotine group was able to concentrate which led to better performance later on in the tasks.
“when attention towards a task starts to dwindle and task-independent thought processes intrude, nicotine may help impede such internal processes and maintain the alerting properties of the task stimuli.”
This has also been found elsewhere; participants given nicotine in the form of tablets or smoking maintained attention during a monotonous task longer than a control who was given a placebo (tablet or cigarette with no nicotine) . Another study also found that smoking (possibly vaping) was most effective due to higher blood levels being achieved.
Other Interesting Benefits From Nicotine Use
Aside from the increased ability to maintain focus, there are many other benefits researchers have found that stem from nicotine use. One useful benefit was that short and long-term memory was improved in smokers and non-smokers who were given nicotine . This is awesome and further solidifies a case for nicotine as a useful nootropic, but they hypothesized that the reason for this benefit may be the result of maintaining quality attention for longer periods of time like we talked about earlier.
The same group also found that response accuracy increased in the nicotine groups which could also be a result of higher quality focus but may also be due to the relaxing effects nicotine has. Furthermore, nicotine increased the response accuracy, especially under high-pressure situations. An extreme example of this was shown in pilots. Amazingly, pilots that were given nicotine performed better in an intense flight simulator than the control group that was not given anything .
“At the behavioral level, we found that nicotine improved performance in all active conditions in terms of response accuracy”
Nicotine and Brain Diseases
When we think of cigarettes, we immediately begin thinking about all the diseases that arise as a result of smoking. It definitely wreaks havoc on the heart and lungs among others. However, I bet you didn’t expect to hear that smoking has been correlated with a lower incidence of some diseases.
These diseases are all typically diseases of the brain and have been specifically correlated to, you guessed it, nicotine. Some specific examples of these include improvements in condition and lower occurrence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and ADHD.
Where to Go From Here
With all the evidence shown here, I hope that you are still repulsed by the idea of smoking cigarettes. However, maybe some of the stigma around nicotine by itself, which is mostly unharmful unless abused, has been lifted. If you do want to try it, I would recommend trying some sort of vape with a liquid that contains small levels of nicotine and work your way up to a level that works for you. While I’m not asking you to try nicotine, keep an open mind when it comes to the benefits it may hold.
Staying focused on a task you know needs to be completed should be easy, right? It’s on the to-do list and once you are able to cross it off, you will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Well, for most of us it’s not that easy. My phone has a little light that blinks at me when I get a notification. It’s like an eye that stares until I cave into the pressure.
Maybe what you’re doing is important, but something you’d rather not be doing at the moment. In school, this was an everyday reality. Luckily, there are many ways that we can increase our ability to pay attention to the task at hand.
One of these has been heavily studied and is an interesting, round-about way to increase focus that I had never heard of it until I was doing research for another article. What I am referring to is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
MBSR pulls tactics from many ancient practices but was largely brought to the Western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. In short, MBSR was developed to help people live happier, healthier and more adaptive lives  through helping people live in the present, utilizing exercises such as meditation, yoga, and other practices . The goal is for you to be fully “awake” and in control of your life rather than aimlessly wandering about.
“The consequence of enhanced mindfulness is a shift from non-awareness and automatic, habitual behaviors and stress responses to conscious awareness and effective, deliberate action”
We will go more in-depth on specific practices later, but let’s first explore some of the research. Early studies showed that it did what it was intended for; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression while also improving overall well-being . The benefits that meditation can have on our psyche are very well known (head here for more information on mindfulness meditation), however, further research started producing some more unique results.
MSBR and attentional control
Researchers started to test the effects that the training had on other aspects of our day-to-day life, one of which was focus, otherwise known as attentional control. The results were stunning. Immediately after MBSR training, older adults were found to have made significant improvements in visual attentional control as well as executive control, especially when performing complex tasks. Executive control can be thought of as your brain’s flexibility and processing power.
These results aren’t limited to older adults. Another study showed the same amazing results among young and middle-aged participants as well . Across the board, it seems as if MBSR can significantly help to increase your attentional control and strengthen your mind.
“MBSR improved the ability to orient attention, and direct and focus attention on relevant inputs”
Let’s put MBSR to the test
We now know that this training can help people of all ages, but if you’re still not convinced, let’s see how MBSR holds up to a bit more of an extreme environment. One of the most stressful activities that I can think of is being in live combat. You have tremendously taxing training and the enemy is actively trying to take your life all while you are separated from your loved ones by thousands of miles.
Researchers showed that without any mindfulness training, active-duty military members had a gradual and significant decrease of working memory capacity throughout their enlistment. However, personnel who actively participated in MBSR actually saw an increase in working memory capacity .
“ mindfulness training was associated with an increase in working memory capacity, defined as the capacity to selectively sustain and manipulate task-relevant information without becoming distracted by irrelevant information.”
Working memory capacity can be broadly defined as your ability to focus attention along with your cognitive processing power. This is important for everyone especially military members or really anyone who is looking for peak cognitive performance.
How does MBSR change us?
Besides the common benefits that meditation has on our psyche and wellbeing, how does MBSR specifically help us to increase our focus and brain power? Well, there are two interesting routes we can examine: physical changes to the brain and mentality changes.
Let’s start with how MBSR has been studied to change us emotionally. One group of researchers found that in addition to enhanced focus and the ability to control where attention is directed, patients became more mindful and, like the name implies, saw a reduction in their stress .
As a result of being more mindful, I would imagine that priorities would become much more clear which might be followed by a realization on how futile it is to check your social media in the middle of an important task. It has also been hypothesized that simply relieving your mind of stress and anxiety allows the brain to function properly, allowing the ability to enhance focus and mind power.
In addition to this, MBSR has been shown to increase activity in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions and general emotional control .
The physiological changes to the brain amazed me when I first read the research. This is where things really get interesting. Scientists found that after just 8 weeks of MBSR, grey matter in the brain increased significantly in the left hippocampus among a few other regions .
Grey matter contains neurons located near the surface of the brain and is responsible for processing information from the central nervous system. It also contains glial cells which transport nutrients and energy molecules to neurons. The hippocampus is the emotional processing plant in our brains along with regulating wakefulness, vigilance, muscle response and heart rate.
“The adult nervous system has the capacity for plasticity, and the structure of the brain can change in response to training… [and] such increases represent enduring changes in brain structure that could support improved mental functioning.”
Just practicing MBSR for 8 weeks actually changed the shape and composition of the brain in an extremely significant way.
Start Doing MBSR!
By this point, I am sure you are 100% ready to embark on your mindfulness-based stress reduction journey. Let’s go into the details on how you can participate in the practice and see some of the same results.
First off, it would be disingenuous of me to act like you can significantly enhance your focus and change the physical composition of your brain with an “easy 5-minute MBSR hack” or something of the sort. This practice is fairly intense and will take some of your time every day.
However, I am hoping that the proven results will serve as motivation to push you through it and hopefully it will become something you enjoy as many do. There are many in-person or online courses that you can participate in to help guide you through, but if that isn’t what you’re looking for or if you don’t have access, I’ll give you some ways to try this at home.
MBSR on your own
Practicing MBSR is very flexible and there are many different methods you can use. Below are some of the most common techniques, though you can find many more through a quick search of the internet. Everyone is different, so choose what works for you and do it. Dedicating 30 minutes to an hour is about the amount of time you should be spending on this if you want to mimic what the methods used in many of the studies.
Mindfulness Meditation: View your thoughts and observe what is happening in your mind. Try to keep a clear mind an not to think about the past or future; the goal is to stay in the present moment as much as possible. Sometimes it is helpful to view your thoughts as an observer, realizing that they are there and what they are rather than analyzing them.
Controlled Diaphragmatic Breathing: Most of us use our upper chest to do most of the work when we breathe. However, breathing with our diaphragm is very beneficial for helping us to be calm. To do this, try to fill the lower part of your lungs with air using inner abdominal/diaphragm muscles. Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest, inhale for a slow count of 5, pause, exhale for a slow count of 5, pause and repeat. Your upper hand shouldn’t move throughout the process. You are sort of filling your “belly” with air. Make sure to focus on every breath and try not to let outside thoughts into your mind.
Body Scan: Lie down and mentally scan different parts of your body, noticing any sensations or feelings that occur. Start at your feet and work your way up, relaxing every muscle on the way. As with the other methods, try to maintain your focus on the body part and banish outside thoughts.
Object Meditation: Hold an object that is special or interesting and focus all of your senses on it. Notice all of the different visual features, how it feels, and how it smells. Do this until you feel that the object is fully examined.
Mindful Eating: Many of us spend our time eating in front of some sort of a screen. While this is entertaining, it is certainly not productive. Practicing mindful eating will help you gain a deeper connection to your food and also will regulate how much you eat. To do this, focus on the feel, look, and taste of the food. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the food you’re eating. I like doing this with healthy food since I often begin contemplating the effect that it will have on my body.
Walking Meditation: Go for a walk in a safe place at a normal pace, noticing sensations you feel with every step along with viewing all of your surroundings. For example, make note of the colors of the trees and sky, the shape of the path, and the people you see without wondering where the people are going or what they may think of you.
Mindful Stretching: Most people are extremely bound up and tight from a lack of movement and stretching. Mindful stretching fixes this along with helping you maintain your mind in the present. Get your yoga mat and start stretching out your body. Try to balance out your stretching between body parts, feeling your muscles the entire time. Focus on the tension in your muscles and the relief afterward.
Yoga: Yoga is very similar to mindful stretching, but it is more structured. Try to find a yoga routine that incorporates a meditation aspect as well. If it doesn’t, that’s ok, just try to focus on your body and movements, dispelling and outside thoughts.
Exercise: Lifting weights or doing cardio are great ways to keep your body and mind healthy. When you perform either, focus on your movements and how your body feels during them.
This list incorporates just a few of your many options to practice MBSR. My favorites are walking meditation, mindful stretching, and lifting weights. These are easy to incorporate into my day and give the added benefit of staying fit and flexible. Just remember to stay in the present moment within any activity you choose and stay consistent. These are the two biggest factors for success.
In addition to these two important reminders, there are a few other principles that are universally true to make MBSR successful:
Treat the experience as a challenge rather than a chore. This is your journey to becoming more aware, awake, and in the present rather than something you ‘have’ to do. Remember that you are doing this to make yourself better.
Stay disciplined and practice for at least 30 minutes daily. Missing a session out of necessity is fine, but don’t make it a habit if you want to be successful.
Practicing long-term, though not necessarily as consistent as when you first start, has been shown to be necessary to maintain the positive effects on enhanced attentional control . You will likely find that the way these make you feel is something you deeply enjoy and choose to do willingly.
This will probably be difficult at first (at least it was for me), so treat it as an educational experience. You are learning how to be in the present moment which may not come naturally right away.
Try to bring yourself to the present moment throughout the day even outside of your training. Maybe on your commute to work, just focus on the sensation of the road, your current surroundings and the colors of the cars around you, for example.
It’s hard to do this on your own, so find a partner or an online community to interact with if possible.
Stay flexible with your practice. Don’t skip something just because it is hard, but if something really doesn’t work for you, there are many other practices that can be chosen from.
And finally, here are some attitudes for success from Jon Kabat-Zinn himself:
Be free of judgment for yourself and others.
Have patience, give yourself time and space to grow.
You must BELIEVE that your mindset can be changed.
You must be willing to learn. The quickest way to stop learning is to have the belief that you know everything. Learning is integral to the human experience and is how we grow to become better.
Don’t have a set goal to strive for. This isn’t a competition, but rather a continuous bout of personal growth.
Let go of your control and let the mindfulness take over.
Practice self-compassion. It’s easy to be hard on yourself if you aren’t seeing progress, but you need to be kind and love yourself. The whole purpose of this exercise is to be more stress-free, happier, and healthier.
Begin your journey to superpower your focus
With everything that has been said, I hope that you will be willing to at least try MBSR to see what it can do for you. The risk is low, but the potential for a stronger mind and improving well-being is high. So, pick a few practices that sound enjoyable and doable and get after it.
As a University student, I have vivid memories of cramming for tests while watching my peers spend hours on end studying for finals. This would often lead to a burning out sensation feeling as if a patch of fog is surrounding your brain. This can happen during long study sessions, work projects, or anything that requires hours of focus. I’m sure you can relate. However, preventing this dreaded brain fog is possible if you approach your studying or work in a smart manner.
The Old Approach
For decades the entire field of psychology was convinced that your attention span was limited. Newer research is turning this theory upside down. Ph.D. researcher Alejandro Lleras believes that psychology spent over four decades taking the wrong approach to studying our attention span. The core belief that our attention span was a limited resource may have inhibited us from discovering more about the way we focus. By the same token, this belief prohibits us from optimizing focus. One of the first steps in optimizing your focus is learning that it doesn’t run out. It just needs variety.
“For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it,” he said. “But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem,” States researcher Alejandro Lleras.
Dr. Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga organized a study to test his hypothesis on attention span. They tested the participants’ ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for about an hour. The 84 subjects were divided into four different groups:
A control group that performed the 50-minute task with no breaks.
A “switch” group as well as a “no-switch” group that memorized four digits before performing the task and were directed to respond if they saw one of the digits on the screen during the task. Only the switch group was actually presented with the digits (twice) during the 50-minute long task.
A “digit-ignored” group who were shown the same digits as the switch group but directed to ignore them.
Most participants experienced a drop off in their performance and focus over the course of the task. But amazingly, Lleras notes, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time. By taking two simple yet brief breaks during the task responding to the digits the participants in the switch group were able to stay focused throughout the entire task.
DeskTime Logs Breakthrough
Another study that highlights the importance of taking short breaks used 5.5 million logs of employee productivity data. The app DeskTime is designed to allow employers insight on whether their employees are working or wasting time on Facebook. After analyzing 5.5 million logs, DeskTime looked into the top 10% most productive workers, and how they spend their time during the day.
Interestingly enough, the most productive workers engage in tasks related to the job for 52 minutes then take a 17-minute break. “That 15-to-20-minute window is productivity’s “golden hour” (or quarter-hour, as the case may be). It’s long enough for your brain to disengage and leave you feeling refreshed, but not so long that you lose focus and derail momentum on what you were doing”.
It seems like being able to engage yourself in the work comes easier when you know there’s a specified time to disengage. The key is to do your work in a dedicated manner, getting work done, and making progress. However, during the break, you’re resting and completely disengaged from any job-related tasks. For example, if you work at a computer this would suggest getting off the computer entirely, maybe stretch, grab a snack or talk with a coworker about non-work related ideas, but doesn’t include browsing YouTube or social media.
If you find yourself needing to prolong your focus then implementing break phases is highly recommended. When studying or focusing in general, it’s also recommended to avoid social media, turn off the T.V. and putting yourself in a comfortable environment of course. Doing this will set yourself up for success while engaging in your studies or work! Have a happy and healthy week!
Have you ever experimented with your optimal on/off time for studying, learning, or working?
Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition,118(3), 439-443. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007
The secret of the 10% most productive people? Breaking! (2018, February 15). Retrieved from https://desktime.com/blog/17-52-ratio-most-productive-people/
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