Brain zaps could boost our minds when computers see us flagging

GRADUATE student Sam Hincks sticks a wet electrode to my forehead, then another, tucking them in place under a black Tufts University sweatband.

“Are you nervous?” he asks.

I am, but I don’t want to lose my cool. “A little,” I say.

Hincks flips the switch. It takes a moment, then I feel a slight, sharp tingle, crashing in waves somewhere just out of my line of sight. One milliamp of current is flowing between the electrodes –through my brain.

The little zap is called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and I am in Robert Jacob’s lab, up on the fourth floor of a Tufts University research building in Medford, Massachusetts. The researchers are exploring the possibilities for computers and wearable devices to read what’s going on in the brain and stimulate it in specific ways.

Jacob’s lab is dedicated to improving the relationship between humans and machines, finding a way for one to communicate more easily with the other. He imagines the fluctuating stress and thoughts of the brain as a dial: if you want to let a computer know how you are feeling, you could manually turn a knob up or down, or you could find a way for the computer to tune into those changing states automatically. Perhaps the computer might even start turning the dial itself.

“I think of the human and the computer as two powerful information processors connected by a narrow channel,” says Jacob. “Our goal is to improve the bandwidth between the two.”

“Our goal is to improve the bandwidth between two powerful processors: the human and the computer …

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