Mind Control

Pop quiz: It’s 3:20 in the afternoon. It’s a busy day at the office, and you’re hitting the wall. And you’ve got another deadly staff meeting coming up in ten minutes. What do you reach for? A cup of strong coffee? A sweet treat to spike your blood sugar? Or your mood-altering helmet?

If a new company called Thync has its way, you’ll be strapping on your little electrodes to zap your skull with electricity. It’s based on “transcranial direct current stimulation” (tDCS) technology that has been used in clinical settings by healthcare professionals to treat a range of conditions from depression to chronic pain. The founders of Thync have a different mission for this consumer device; they want to let you dial up the mood change that you desire, from relax, to focus, to energize.

The product has been in development for several years, tested on thousands of volunteer subjects (including the company’s founders). And now it is widely reported that the company just closed $13 million in new venture capital funding with the goal of delivering its first commercial product next year.

Can the product do what it claims to do? That remains to be seen. But if you accept the premise that it does work, it raises some interesting questions. Is there a difference between using an electrical device and a chemical stimulant to give yourself a boost of energy, or to calm you down? What sort of risks of addiction are there in such devices? Could they be dialed in to focus on delivering a pleasurable — or even euphoric — sensation? Would that be a good thing for individuals, employers, and society as a whole? No matter what your answers to these questions might be, it looks as if we’re going to find out the answers to at least some of them before too long.