Nov 23, 2014

tDCS: better cognition through electricity?

For the past month or so I've been doing regular tDCS sessions. What's tDCS? The FLA stands for transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Basically you run an electric current through your brain for a while and it makes you better.


Well, that's what the research says it does. It's a mild current, and a relatively short time, but everything I've read says it's unlikely to be harmful, and likely to be good. My subjective view is that it makes me better. That may be for reasons that are less related to the science of neurostimulation and more related to the science of the placebo effect. And from the sense of empowerment I get from saying "Fuck you!!" to the cognitive decline part of the aging process.

If any blogologists have noted how much better written this and the the last few paragraphs are compared to my usual drivel,  you now have the answer. I'm doing a tDCS session as I write this.

But seriously, I am really doing this. I don't have objective information that shows that it's helping, and won't have any owing the the difficulty of doing double-blind sham-tDCS-controlled tests on myself, but here's my experience. I do the tDCS while I'm doing something else: sometimes it's something that I like, such as writing, and sometimes it's something I'm neutral-to-negative about, like organizing some crap in my office, and sometimes it's something that's kind of annoying, like reconciling our credit card account. And very often, not always, at some point I think: "Wow! I feel unusually good." And I realize I'm doing a tDCS session. And I check the timer on my device, and I'm usually 7-10 minutes into the current (NPI) session. Which proves exactly nothing, but I don't care.

I'm still working the bugs out of the system, so I still experience one of the common, negative side effects: a kind of itching burning sensation under the electrode pads. It's enough to annoy me, and even to discourage me at times, but not enough to stop me. I think it has something to do with getting the concentration of the conductive solution right. Or maybe I've got Sensitive Skin and I'll have to Suck It Up And Live With It.  Eventually I'll figure it out. Or not.

And what makes it easier to push on through is that I've now got a tDCS buddy to help me over my distraction and push past the minor skin irritation. Who is it? Astoundingly, it's my generally techno-skeptic semi-luddite beloved life partner, Bobbi. She calls it "electrocuting her brain" but she's doing it along with me, at least one session per day. I try to do three. Shows the power of true love. Or desperation.

I had been researching tDCS intermittently (or inconsistently, if you want to get judgmental) for about five years. Everything that I've read (links to some of my sources are at the bottom) has said pretty much the same thing: most people experienced no undesirable side effects, mainly minor skin irritation (like me); a few have experienced headaches, which are also a common side-effect with placebos; many experienced positive effects.

The research often compares three configurations: Anodal tDCS, in which the stimulating electrode, the one stimulating the brain is the anode and the cathode, often called the reference electrode, is on forehead, check, neck, or arm. Cathodal tDCS in which the electrodes are reversed. And sham in which there's nothing going on. Maybe some cayenne powder on the electrode for the sting.

It's always possible that there are long-term negative effects, but I'm not too worried about that. The whole idea of long-term negative effects is irrelevant to amusing to someone over 70 like me. And in the presence of ample evidence of short-term positive effects, I say it's worth the risk.

The device I'm using comes from [Trans-cranial Technologies]( "When only the best in tDCS therapy will do." Which may be true. Or the best may be from [Fisher Wallace]( "The Proven Device for Depression, Insomnia, Anxiety & Pain; Featured in The Wall Street Journal." FW costs about twice as much, and it is FDA cleared, so maybe it is better, but I'm not about to do any double-blind sham-controlled studies to check it out. I'll just keep electrocuting my brain with my TCT device.

The first tDCS device to get me excited was called [GoFlow]( The link is to a Kickstarter-style video explaining the concept: a complete, $100-ish open-source consumer-style unit. Stick it on your head and turn it on. No wires, pads built in and positioned. I signed up to be notified when they had something to sell. They tried going on their own; then tried Kickstarter (rejected!!!) then finally, after repeated delays, they quit. [Their site]( is now a forum.

In the meantime I'd investigated other devices and found the landscape looked like this:

* Fisher Wallace at $800 or so at the time, plus possibly another $100 to get their shill-doctor to prescribe it
* DIY from schematics at a couple of bucks for parts, and take your chances
* Wait for something better

One thing I learned, and you may as well: if you Google for tDCS and especially if you land at FW's website, then for weeks your Google ads will promote FW, and your YouTube video ads will all have FW content. I think I'm due for more FW ads now.

My next serious run at getting a device came after I joined the [Maine Hackers Club](http:\\ One of the regulars there, Michal, is a brillant hardware hacker. I found the [Open Stim Project]( which provides both a hardware reference and control software. For the price of the parts Michal built me a board and populated it. But I needed pads.

That sent me to [tdcs-kit](, for a $40.00 device, including pads. Now I was set up, but still not happy. I believed that both this device and Michal's were safe, but still. If I'm going to run a current through my brain, did it make sense to use the cheapest thing that I could?

My brain deserved better.

So I convinced myself that it was worth the $379 that they wanted and placed the order. Only to find that the shipping cost from Hong Kong was another $100. But in for $379, in for a $479, so I placed the order. No regrets.

If you're interested in finding out more, [diytdcs]( a good starting point. They'll point to you a number of other resources, including the [tDCS subreddit](

For tdcs montages try [this](

Nov 19, 2014

How does it all come out?

Teenagers, assuming that they think at all, think they are immortal. I know I thought I was immortal. And although when I was a teen I thought that I thought, I now look back and think: "I don't think so!" 

Older people, assuming that they think at all, think differently. I know I do. Although I wouldn't be surprised if a later version of myself looked back on these thoughts and thought: "I don't think so." 

Evolutionary psychology says there's a reason that young people think they immortal. Perhaps we'll discuss that another day. Practical psychology says that there's a reason why older people think otherwise and I'll talk about that now: As someone gets to my age, assuming they aren't already dead, they'll see more and more of their peers dying. The more dead friends, the more they'll believe that they'll follow the rule and not be the exception. I know I do. 

I remember a conversation I had a few decades ago with Bill Harmon, the father of a friend. Bill was enough older that I thought he might be contemplating his own mortality and he was smart enough that I thought his insights might be useful. 

He wasn't afraid of death, he told me, but it annoyed him to know that he wouldn't get to see how it all comes out. 

My wife, Bobbi, a mythologist by inclination and training (possessor of a well-earned PdD in the subject) has taught me to look at life through story. And there are so many interesting stories! 

At the macro level there's the story of the universe: one that's changed a lot since I first learned it in pre-big-bang days. We have a story about its evolution from those first, hot moments; we know a lot about its current story; and we we know that the universe's end is cold and dark, but perhaps not as bad as we think. At least if the ideas of the brilliant physicist Freeman Dyson has an interesting theory about the future of intelligence in the universe. Dyson says that intelligence is eternalBut is he right? Close to right? Unlikely we'll know how it turns out. But we can read his story, "Infinite in All Directions" here

Then there's the story of the planet we call Earth, being reshaped by the upstart species that we belong to. That is, assuming you are the same kind of creature that I am.

I have three biological daughters that I know of--and I hope that's all of them--and I have 3 tenured sons, married or soon to be married to my daughters, all with interesting, evolving stories. I have five grandkids, each beginning their own stories. I have friends with stories. Branches of science and threads of technology I follow, each with their own stories. And there are the stories of softer subjects that I follow. For example, self referentially, there's the story of our unfolding understanding of story itself. 

Old stories continue. New stories begin. Few stories truly end. 

Mine will not end, It will go on without me, and slowly fade. 

And sadly, I won't get to find out how it all comes out.

Nov 17, 2014

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light

This morning I remembered Dylan Thomas's poem, written for his dying father, "Do not go gentle into that good night."

You might like listening to Dylan Thomas reading the last quatrain of the poem on YouTube. 

Or you might read the ending below

And you, my father, there on the sad height,Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.Do not go gentle into that good night.Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or go for broke and read the entire poem, here. But I digress.

I first read the poem years ago.  I saw, in the then-future, my own father going. I expected he'd go gentle, because he was a gentle man. And indeed he did. But, as I recall, I said to myself:  "Self, not me. I'm going out raging. Raging. Raging. Raging at the dying of the light. Yeah! Booyah!"

Now I'm older, and things are different. For one thing, I don't say "Booyah!" Gave that up when I was sixty. And I recognize that I'm not a rager, and really never was. A fighter, but not a rager. And, as this blog, among other things, gives witness, I'm fighting, fighting, fighting. Though I know it's a losing fight.

That's how I hope to go out. Fighting. But maybe not. Sometimes I see a different ending, where I stop fighting, and decide to go.  Gentle-like. I can imagine now what I could not imagine before: a time when I say to death, "Okay, Death. I'm tired. I give up. Take me." 

Because of tiredness. A bone-wearying soul-destroying tiredness. Happens to me a few times a year, maybe when its allergy season, or maybe when I get some kind of low-grade infection. More often now than when I was younger, I get tired. Tired. Tired. So tired.

When you're torturing people (something that I neither confirm nor deny doing) and you don't want to leave any evidence of your torture and your water boarding gear is in the shop getting repaired, then the recommended torture technique is sleep-deprivation. After enough sleep-deprivation, strong people crack. They break down. They give up secrets. They betray their friends. And sometimes they think about going gentle into that good night, instead of raging, raging, at the dying of the light.

It's happened to me. Sometimes. I get so tired that for a moment I think that even death is preferable. So I give up, and I take a nap. And then I'm OK.

Still, I hate being so vulnerable. And I hate thinking about what might happen if I can't sleep because of pain or something. Or when sleep doesn't refresh me like it does now. I know I'm no hero, but I think I can deal with substantial pain. But not tiredness.

When that good night beckons I ain't going gentle into it.

Instead, like right now, I think I'll take a nap.

Nov 16, 2014

Senior creativity: inventing new words

I'm usually annoyed at the changes in my mental infrastructure. Blown fuses. Memory parity errors. Slow reboots. Noisy signals. No BSD yet, but that's only because I'm not running Windows. At least I hope I'm not.

I don't see the changes, of course, only their effects, and from the effects I infer the underlying causes. I hear sounds, but can't translate the sounds into words or the words to meanings. I forget a well-known fact.  A few weeks ago I forgot my zip code. At least I think I did. But I'm not sure it was my zip code I forgot. Maybe it was my telephone number. Maybe it wasn't a couple of weeks ago, but a couple of months ago.


That's a metamemory loss: I've forgotten what it is that I forgot.

A common failure mode, which I've written about before, is word blending: my mental machinery is trying to express an idea and uses a kind of map-reduce network to do it. Tasks are dispatched to develop alternative formulations of multiple variations of the idea; tasks spawn subtasks to choose appropriate words and phrases; then all of the mapped variations are reduced to a single, coherent speech-stream. In theory.

But sometimes the reduce part of the network fails, and instead of choosing one word or another it gives conflicting orders to the vocal apparatus. And out comes a new word. Or a new sound. Or the system crashes, and I need to reboot.

I may have the causes wrong, but these are the effects. And it's not just me. Today, Bobbi asked me to get a spinge, Really? A spinge? I'm not sure what word was blended with sponge to get spinge, but something was.

We decided--actually she decided, and I went along--that we consider this not a failure mode, but a new form of creativity. "What's a spinge?" She asked. "We should make up a new definition."

So, for all of you (both of you? All three of you?) reading this, a spinge is a spinning sponge.

Got a spill? Spinge it, don't sponge it!

Mad a mess on your binge? Clean it up with a spinge!

Get your spinge in time for Christmas.

Hurry, while spinge supplies last.


EDIT: the original version said a spinge was a spinning ponge. WTF is a ponge? That may be the subject of a future post. Or not.

Nov 14, 2014

Fooling myself about my mental state

For a while, around the time that I started this blog, I was using Lumosity, a website that provides games that exercise mental skills. Arguably (as in: they would argue) using Lumosity improves your mental ability.

I did the exercises for a while and then, as with so many things, I lost interest. Recently I returned to play some more. I was surprised, unpleasantly, at what I found.

First, of course, and not surprisingly, my performance had gone down. The whole idea of practice is to keep your performance up. So when you don't practice, of course your performance should drop.  Comparing myself to my age cohort I found I'd dropped from being in the 90th percentile (where I've spent my mental life, usually at the high, or very high end) to being in the 80's. That one digit looms large.

But what was more surprising was how I compared to younger cohorts. Here's how I rate:

Age   Percentile
60-64 73.8
50-54  62.7
40-54  47.3
30-34  29.7
20-24  23.7

To make matters worse, my performance has deteriorated over the past four weeks. That may be due, in part, to the fact that I'm using my Chromebook rather than my ThinkPad, and I think I'm better with the Thinkpad keyboard and mouse.

OK, so what does that mean? 

Assuming that Lumosity measures some mental quality--let's call it brightness--then here are the hypothesis that explain the results:

  1. Lumosity signs up people with the same distribution of brightness within each age cohort, and I'm really falling off a cliff.
  2. The younger a person who signs up for Lumosity is, the brighter that they are likely to be, and I'm doing fine
  3. Brightness is less strongly correlated to intelligence than it is to hand-eye coordination and younger people have spent more time playing games, and I'm fine
  4. Or, taking a more extreme view, "Lumosity's Brain Games Are Bullshit"

I can't think of a mechanism that would make (2) be true. 
I'd like to believe that (3) is true, and it is probably a factor.
So I'm going to go with (4), which is a less charitable version of (3)
Or this hypothesis: replace "brightness" with "reflexes." That's consistent with the evidence, and so much better for my ego.

This statement:
The Stanford Center for Longevity joined today with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in issuing a statement skeptical about the effectiveness of so-called "brain game" products. Signing the document were 69 scholars, including six from Stanford and cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists from around the world.
from here, ices it for me. I'll get more done by replacing my Lumosity time with aerobic exercise.

So that's what I'm going to do.

We'll see how things change.

Thanks to Zemata for the link to bullshit.