Electric Brains Unplugged
By Eric M. Jones
“SCIENCE” IS THE HUMAN invention of a method that builds and structures knowledge using testable hypotheses. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman commented that science is the best technique we have to prevent fooling ourselves. Humans can easily fool themselves. We’re extremely good at it.
One of the fairest methods in “Design of Experiments,” which is fundamental to the testing of hypotheses, is the double-blind method, where neither the experimenters nor the subjects know what is what.
In its simple form used in drug testing, if you want to know if a certain new pharmaceutical has an effect, you take a number of volunteers and give each a pill, some containing the product-to-be-tested and some containing a placebo substance which is known to do nothing. When the test is concluded, the experimenters “open the sealed envelope” to discover who had the real drug and who had the placebo.
The double-blind method is very powerful, but it has a number of problems. (Because we’re just human beings!) The first is that a fraction of the subjects receiving the placebo will claim to experience, or even actually experience, some sort of effect. The second is that a number of experiments will be invalid because someone has fiddled with the data.
Sometimes experimenters only announce the data that supports a certain point of view—or data that is likely to add to their funding. If the data didn’t show anything ... well, it just doesn’t count. After all, we try to design the experiment to detect the existence of certain hypothetical phenomena.
There is an even more insidious problem: double-blind experiments are exceedingly difficult to do. Lots of experiments, by their very nature, preclude double-blinding and many are just unethical or illegal. One could argue that these are the majority of experiments.
If we don’t find any data, it is only human nature to suspect that we haven’t designed our experiment correctly. So we rejigger our experimental test setup until we start to get some real results. What’s wrong with that? J. B. Rhine’s ESP tests at Duke University, for one. Linus Pauling’s vitamin-C claims for another. Chiropractic and homeopathic nonsense thrives on poor (or no) valid experiments. Humans have an endless capacity to fool themselves. They’ll even pay money for it. Lots of money.
Acupuncture, for example, is a complete scam, but it is hard to convince certain people based on the very high placebo effect showing positive results. For years scientists have tried to run double-blind experiments for acupuncture but were flummoxed to form a control group getting exactly the same treatment where neither the practioner nor the patient would know if needles were used or not.
Recently there has been progress. From the excellent Wikipedia article:
A 2014 “Nature Reviews Cancer” article reported that “contrary to the claimed mechanism of redirecting the flow of qi through meridians, researchers usually find that it generally does not matter where the needles are inserted, how often (that is, no dose-response effect is observed), or even if needles are actually inserted. In other words, sham or placebo acupuncture generally produces the same effects as real acupuncture and, in some cases, does better.”
Many “sham” medical techniques actually involve laying-on of hands, much mumbo-jumbo ceremony, and a visit to a richly appointed “healing center.” Thus a double-blind experiment is impossible. Does cupping work? Does moxibustion work? Certainly it’s absurd ... but tests are hard to do.
Is it possible that brain stimulation works to improve intelligence? This argument has been going on for a long time.
E. Leslie Gilliam, in the December 1912 issue of “Popular Electricity Magazine” wrote about Nikola Tesla’s plan of electrically treating school children.
“Nikola Tesla believes he has found an electrical way of lessening the burdens of school life and the difficulties of acquiring education. A few months ago Mr. Tesla laid before the superintendent of the schools of New York, William H. Maxwell, a plan for making dull pupils bright by saturating them unconsciously with electricity.
“Mr. Maxwell, an eminently progressive and practical man, after a careful investigation of Mr. Tesla’s plan, arrived at the conclusion that the experiment could not possibly do the pupils any harm, seemed feasible, and to promise the accomplishment of great good.
“Therefore he endorsed it for a six month trial.
“News of the new electrical project has leaked out in the school world, and the eyes of progressive schoolmasters all over the United States are now turned towards New York, and many inquiries have been received by Mr. Maxwell, requesting particulars regarding this novel electrical educational experiment.
“Nothing in detail, however, will be furnished for a while, as after the test has been made, careful calculations must be undertaken and conclusions and deductions drawn therefrom. It has been announced that the experiment is first to be conducted on a class of mentally defective children, the most difficult of all pupils to handle, and the bane and trial of every school teacher’s life.
“Mr. Tesla’s plan for the arrangement of the experimental electrical school room, which has received Mr. Maxwell’s approval, calls for the installation in this room of a number of insulated cable wires through the walls. These wires will be so carefully concealed as not to be noticeable to the pupils. Every effort will be made to keep the knowledge of the experiment from them. In general appearance the room will not differ from the ordinary bright, sunny, cheerful school room with its desks and other useful fixtures.
“A high frequency current of millions of volts will be generated in an apartment properly arranged for the purpose outside of the school room. When school begins, by simply turning a switch, the high frequency current will be turned on, by one of the instructors, and shortly afterwards the school room will become completely saturated with infinitesimal electrical waves vibrating at high frequency. The whole room will thus, Mr. Tesla claims, be converted into a health giving and stimulating electro-magnetic field, or bath.
“When the inventor’s plan was first brought to the attention of the Board of Education in New York, a lively controversy over the benefits of the proposition ensued. A fear existed on the part of some of the members of the board that the stimulation of the defective children, during the experimental period of six months, might be followed by a more or less prolonged or permanent reaction. These educators based their view upon the position taken by Professor W.C. Bagley of the Department of Physiology of the University of Illinois, who has made the statement that it would be years before it could be determined whether bad effects followed such an electrical experiment. Mr. Tesla and other noted electrical experts, who have had great experience with high frequency currents, claim that Professor Bagley is at fault in his presumption.
“As proof they point to the fact that Mr. Tesla’s project is more than a plan as, in Stockholm, it has already been carried out by Professor Svante Arrhenius with school children and proved most successful. No after-effects except those of a beneficial nature have been observed, although they have been carefully looked for.
“According to Tesla, the high frequency current sets up in the body what he describes as a sort of molecular massage or tissue gymnastics. The tiny particles of which the body is composed are constantly in motion, and the high frequency current causes them to move about in a livelier fashion and increase in number. This unusual activity of the molecules of the human body brings about increased oxidation—the burning up of the waste product of the body by oxygen.
“He acknowledges that his plan of stimulating dull pupils by saturating them with electricity is based on the well-known theory of stimulating plant growth by electricity—a theory which has been successfully carried out in England by Sir Oliver Lodge, and has also been tried with favorable results by scientists in Denmark and Belgium.
“The up-to-date home of the near future, Mr. Tesla believes, will not only be a place of rest, ease and comfort, but a health resort and a sanitarium as well, making seaside vacations unnecessary.
“It will be equipped with high frequency electrical apparatus which will, without the knowledge of the inmates, keep them constantly charged with electricity, thereby warding off many ills and aches now common, and making the workers always fit for the battle of life. By means of the high frequency currents, he says, all the benefits of the seashore may be obtained right in the crowded city. Instead of spending a few weeks by the sea waves every summer, a man and his family may derive all the benefits of the seaside in his own home all the year around.”
Power to the Brain
So what do you think ever happened to this experiment? It ends on a hopeful note, but doesn’t report the results. I certainly find a blizzard of similar hopeful experiments along the same line. Great hopes, no positive results.
Nearly a century later (June 26, 2008) in “MIT Technology Review,” surely a respectable magazine, in their Biomedicine section, Emily Singer wrote an article “Want to Enhance Your Brain Power?” summarizing an approach known as transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), in which an electrical current is passed directly to the brain through the scalp and skull.
The article is reasonably hopeful and optimistic, but buoyed by a large raft of weasel-words:
“Research hints that electrically stimulating the brain can speed learning.”
“A new option may be on the horizon.”
“Previous small-scale studies have suggested ...”
“In the 1960s, it was used to improve mood in people with psychiatric disorders, although that effect hasn’t been repeated in more recent studies.”
Part of the problem of electro-brain stimulation is that the brain is very hard to get to from the outside. Mere electrodes applying current to the scalp have to penetrate conductive blood and tissues, the boney skull, the dura mater, cerebrospinal fluids ... and then what have you got?... two kilograms of jelly in which something very complicated and mysterious is happening.
Opening the skull and poking wires into the soft brain tells you something, but hardly points to a path to better functioning of the brain’s mysterious parts. When people are poking probes into your brain, something is already going terribly wrong. Magnetic stimulation shows something, but is still highly experimental. A neural engineer at Duke University [uh-oh], in Durham, N.C., writes “what’s happening at the level of the synapse, where the business of learning really takes place, we don’t know.”
In summary ... stay tuned. In the meantime, a dozen pharmaceuticals and learning pills will deliver powerful brain stimulation where the test results are undeniable. Applying various electrical and magnetic stimuli to the brain will probably continue to be a real future possibility, as it has been for a century.
But don’t stick your head into the Krell Brain Booster.
Eric M. Jones is the Associate Editor and co-founder of “Perihelion.” He is a design engineer, consultant, entrepreneur, and pilot, working in the experimental aircraft community, NASA, space transportation companies, and the ISS.