My first-ever Vipassana meditation was in Amsterdam. Sitting on a little pillow, our teacher told us that the key to Vipassana meditation is to observe your own thoughts without attachment.
In the following weeks, I invited several friends to those Vipassana sessions. After 90 minutes of meditation, we’d go for a drink and wonder: what happens to your brain when you meditate?
In his TED-talk, Mathieu Ricard answers this question. He shows pictures of Buddhist monks lying inside big fMRI machines. The monks are subjects in a research study to understand the influence of meditation on the structure of the brain. The research showed that the brain structure changes through meditation: monks show more neural activity when they look at images that raise our sense of empathy.
After seeing this image, I wondered if a Buddhist monk would agree to use a technology that instantly creates the effect of meditation, without the many years of practice it typically takes to create a truly tranquil mind. In the last month, I learned that the first signs of such a technology exist. Called transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS); it’s so simple that you can build a setup for less than $50.
I first learned about tDCS in The Economist’s Technology Quarterly, and by listening to a fascinating podcast by Radiolab. In the episode, a journalist for New Scientist explains how her performance in a military simulation game improved from sub-standard to perfect, simply by running a bit of electricity through her brain. (She participated in a military training simulation; her goal was to survive a danger situation in Afghanistan. Without tDCS, she shot 3 out of 20; with tDCS, she hit all targets.) When she performed the exercise without the brain stimulation, she felt extremely stressed; when she used tDCS, time seemed to slow down, decisions were much simpler, and, at the end of the game, the journalist asked the supervisor why they had skipped the hard part of the simulation. Effectively, tDCS creates an effect that meditation can create too: it brings you into a state of focus—letting go of doubts, worries, and peripheral thoughts.
What could this mean for our future? Will baseball-caps provide electric shocks to our brain to keep us in a constant state of “flow”? Is it possible to keep the brain in a constant high; or would our neural cells set the electric current as the new normal, requiring a higher power-flow? If technology can create a focused mind, would a monk use it, or would using it fail to complete the deeper goal of non-attachment?
(After I listened to this episode, I ordered a tDCS device myself. I’m very curious to see what it does.)