So let’s say you’ve done a good job of supporting your brain health. You’re avoiding pro-inflammatory foods, eating lots of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, perhaps you’ve found a nootropic stack with favorable results, but you want more.
You want to live better through modern science and you know there are tools out there to get you to peak mental capacity. You want to maximize your work productivity, be motivated to give every workout the mental focus it deserves, read faster, have better conversations, and operate in a way you never have before.
Well, you’re in luck. They may not yet be mainstream, but there is a whole host of tools that are safe and enable you to do things like increase blood flow to your brain, improve cognitive performance and skill acquisition, allow for better focus during a workout, and even allow you to increase awareness and decrease stress.
And so you know that this is legitimate, even NBA pros like the Golden State Warriors are making use of “brain zapping” to optimize and stimulate the brain before practice and games. But brain upgrading isn’t just limited to professional sports. There are ways to use these brain tools to treat things like depression, anxiety, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even Alzheimer's.
Not only that but when you change your brain, you change your entire experience of the world.
With so many options to choose from, here are five proven tools that will catapult your brain power to the next level.
5 Tools For Brain Optimization
From influencing brainwave patterns to harnessing the power of light and sound, or even just playing simple games, these five tools offer you potent cognitive benefits as a direct result of scientific advances in the understanding of the human brain.
1. tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation)
The neurostimulation used by the Golden State Warriors on their way to the NBA championship is called transcranial direct stimulation, or tDCS. In simple terms, tDCS devices send a constant, low direct current (about five hundred to a thousand times lower than that used in electroshock therapy) to a particular area of the brain based upon where electrodes are placed on the head. The current affects the excitability of the neurons by changing the potential of the nerve-cell membrane, with a positive current stimulating neural activity by increasing neuronal excitability and the likelihood of neurons to fire, and a negative current decreasing neuronal excitability and neuron firing. The results of tDCS depend upon which area of the brain is being stimulated, whether a positive or negative current is used, and the duration of the tDCS session.
The tool used by the Golden State Warriors is a headphone-like device called the “Halo Sport” that uses specifically positioned electrodes to send a current through the area of your brain called the motor cortex, which is the area of your brain from where muscle commands originate. To use, you’d put the headphones on for twenty minutes in the early stages of your workout or during your warmup (or even before playing a left-right hand coordination activity like a video game or a musical instrument), activate the stimulation with the associated smartphone app, and then start training. According to Halo, this primes your brain to deliver “stronger, more synchronous” signals to your muscles.
And there’s actual science to back this up. For example, a study on cyclists in which Brazilian sports scientists used tDCS to apply an electrical current to the cortex in the brain showed some pretty impressive results. After twenty minutes of real or fake brain stimulation, the cyclists completed an all-out ride to exhaustion. And sure enough – the cyclists who underwent the electrical stimulation had significantly lower heart rates, lower perceived exertion and a 4% higher power output (that may sound small, but is actually huge for a cyclist). This study found that tDCS allowed subjects to activate a higher percentage of their muscle and lift more weight while doing a bicep curl while also preventing neural drive during fatiguing tasks.
Outside of sport, tDCS has also been studied for its effects on motor skill acquisition. This study, again using tDCS over the primary motor cortex, found greater improvement in the tDCS group on a finger sequence task where subjects had to press a keyboard as quickly and accurately as possible. The tDCS groups and placebo groups trained for five consecutive days, and then when asked to perform the task three months later, the tDCS group still performed better, demonstrating that the improvement in learning lasts even without continued stimulation.
There’s tons more research and this is an expanding area of interest that’s definitely worth checking out.
This method of brain hacking has been described as “meditation on steroids”. The goal of neurofeedback is to train your brain to function more efficiently through better self-regulation and to strengthen specific desirable brainwave patterns.
An initial examination prior to neurofeedback training is done using a brain scan and brain mapping system called a quantified electroencephalography, or “QEEG”, which shows whether your brain is functioning optimally. Then you engage in training that teaches your brain how to increase specific brainwaves while decreasing others, leading to more desirable brainwave patterns and giving you far more control over the way your own brain works.
You may have seen stories about people flying spaceships on a screen using their mind. This particular training protocol was overseen by Dr. Andrew Hill of the Peak Brain Institute in Los Angeles. This spaceship “game” is a completely non-voluntary process that shapes the brain by giving it feedback only when it’s doing certain things. This feedback is based on a reward system by which the brain is punished when it goes into undesirable wavelength patterns. For example, the spaceship will stop flying or the music behind the spaceship will fade away or the smoke coming out of the back of the spaceship will decrease if you stray into stressful beta brainwaves patterns, and that’s a sign to your brain that it actually needs to stop those beta brainwaves and go into alpha brainwave production. This is all dictated by an EEG amplifier that picks up your brain signals through electrodes on your head and sends them to the computer software.
Although there are home training devices, this type of training is best done with a neurofeedback practitioner, at least initially.
From inexpensive home training neurofeedback units to professional training programs overseen by your own personal team of neuroscientists, neurofeedback can be used to manage things like depression, anxiety, ADHD or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or to just optimize your thinking patterns.
3. Light Therapy
Light therapy or photobiomodulation has a dizzying variety of applications for “brain hacking”. For example, in the article “How To Hack Your Environment For Better Sleep” you can learn how different light therapy devices affect your sleeping and wake patterns and how you can use light to optimize or change your circadian rhythm.
Photobiomodulation can not only regulate or even “hack” your body’s natural circadian rhythm, it can also shut down inflammation in the brain, and produce copious amounts of nitric oxide in neural tissue (think of this like “Viagra” for the brain), boost oxygenation and enhance memory function and cognition with near-infrared light stimulation. This type of thing used to be something you could only find in a hospital or expensive clinical setting, however, it can now be delivered via an extremely affordable headset device called the VieLight Neuro.
This device makes use of transcranial-intranasal light therapy with a little probe that goes in the nostril and a headset. This emits infrared light at a frequency that actually causes nitric oxide production and activates more of the cellular activity in your neural tissue with light stimulation of blood capillaries in the nasal cavity. Much of the nitric oxide produced is not only felt in your head but it crosses your blood-brain barrier to the rest of your body. So it's a very cool thing you can use for example at night to help with sleep, before a workout, or during the day if you just want to help out with brain inflammation or improve focus.
There are even some really interesting and intriguing studies going on right now in terms of reversal or control of things like dementia and Alzheimer's using frequencies and light to fix these kinds of conditions.
4. Brainwave Entrainment
Brainwave entrainment is any method that causes your brainwave frequencies to fall into step with a specific frequency. It's based on the concept that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant EEG frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus. Unlike neurofeedback, which can target specific sites of the brain, brainwave entrainment is less targeted and involves audio or visual stimuli to influence or “entrain” the electrical activity in the brain. This influence allows you to reach different states of consciousness, such as deep relaxation or expanded states of awareness.
With entrainment, you can become capable of increasing hemispheric synchronization (e.g. communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain). There are a variety of entrainment programs that can help with things like improving meditation practice, decreasing anxiety, improving focus, and managing mood-related disorders.
Examples of different programs include Hemi-Sync (a type of brainwave entrainment program that uses binaural beats), Holosync (an audio program developed to improve meditation, cognition, and sleep), audio-visual entrainment (these machines utilize flashing pulses of visual and auditory stimuli to alter a person’s brain waves), and much more. For a simple introduction to brainwave entrainment, you could start with an app called Brain.fm. Best used with a pair of noise-blocking headphones, this app uses music to stimulate the brain and influence different cognitive states.
There are also devices, like the EarthPulse, that produce pulsed electromagnetic frequencies (PEMFs) in the 10-hertz range (completely safe and far lower than what a cell phone radiates) that can influence brain wave frequencies. This pulsed frequency can increase cell membrane potential in the brain, boost alpha-brain-wave production and assist with activities such as focus and sleep.
5. Brain Training Games
Brain aerobics and brain exercises such as Sudoku or crossword puzzles help age-proof the brain and keep it functioning at peak capacity. To qualify as a good brain exercise, an activity must have novelty, variety, and challenge. It doesn’t matter if you use pen and paper or structured apps like the Brainscape app, which allows you to create your own flashcards and learning activities.
There is also a free program called “Dual N-Back Training”, which involves increasingly difficult levels of short-term memory recall of certain letters and numbers. A University of Switzerland study and a 2012 German study showed that a few weeks of Dual N-Back training can increase executive function, the ability to practice mental discipline, to concentrate intently on one thing while completely ignoring something else, to mentally compartmentalize activities, and to direct attention with specificity or to apply all creative energy towards a task until it's completion.
Using or even combining a wide spectrum of tools like tDCS, neurofeedback, light therapy, brainwave entrainment or simple brain training games, it’s never been easier to upgrade your mind. There are many ways that we can hack the brain, ways we can get the brain to do things that it might otherwise not normally have been able to do quite so efficiently or quite so quickly.
To stay on the cutting edge of brain-hacking gear, the website Quantified Self is recommended. Also. if you want more resources on brain-enhancing, check out two great books written by Dr. Eric Braverman – a true brain expert. They are “The Edge Effect“, which discusses how to treat your brain to reverse or prevent Alzheimer’s aging, memory loss, weight gain, and sexual dysfunction, and “Younger Brain, Sharper Mind“, which is a six-step plan for preserving and improving memory and attention at any age.
You can get started with brain training today by choosing one activity that makes “smoke come out your ears”, like learning a new song on an instrument (or a new instrument!), playing ping pong or tennis, doing a crossword puzzle or reading a book about a complex topic.