by Dr. Sung Lee, Director of Research with Brain State Technologies
This is a speculative post about the stunning, but ultimately strange and disappointing performance of the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors.
On June 15, the New Yorker ran an article, “For the Golden State Warriors, Brain Zapping Could Provide an Edge,” in which a journalist reported that the Warriors were using a variety of advanced technologies to enhance their performance. One product mentioned prominently, being used by “an unspecified number of players,” was a Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS) device – a headset that provides bursts of electric current to the brain, through the skull. A glance at the website of the device company reveals that the intention of their product is to permit “Neuro-priming… more robust signaling increases motor unit recruitment, so more muscle fibers are activated during training. With this increase, gains in strength are seen more rapidly.”
The New Yorker article ended with a skeptical tone, ultimately suggesting that much of what athletes do to enhance their performance – probably including TDCS – is scientifically baseless, and their benefits, if any, may largely come through placebo effects – the sheer power of belief.
I am not so sure about the journalist’s assessment. And here is my speculation: I can’t help but wonder if TDCS played a bigger role in the Warriors’ dominance – and collapse – in 2015-16, than almost any of their fans probably imagine.
On its website, the device company showcases studies showing that they can prime the motor system for greater strength and dexterity – including “explosive force development.” It is not difficult to believe that these findings are basically valid. It has long been known that certain kinds of specific human behaviors are managed by specific regions of the brain, and it is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that readiness to learn and express a given behavior might be “nudged along” by bursts of electricity directed at those brain regions.
The degree of performance improvement that the Warriors showed in the last few years struck most observers as simply astonishing. Was it TDCS that was the ultimate warm-up exercise for the Warriors, prior to their repeated drills on three-point shots? Did they use TDCS to enhance firing of their motor systems, to re-sculpt those systems for accurate shooting?
My guess is yes. Dedicated practice and raw talent were the critical foundation for the Warriors, as they are for all athletes. But it may well have been TDCS – zapping of their motor neuron networks – that gave them the edge over their rivals during their runaway regular season.
But here is where the story gets more complicated. There was another side to the Warriors. Their coach says they regularly “walk a line between explosive and reckless.” Their other side was shown in sharp relief during their last two playoff series, when one of their key athletes hit the groin of opposing players on two occasions; the second time, during the finals, it earned him a suspension. Another one was ejected during the finals for throwing his mouthpiece into the stands.
TDCS may well prime motor networks to wire themselves for rapid motor learning, but are there other consequences from those same repeated bursts of electricity? Does it also prime the motor system for activation in other, less adaptive ways?
Earlier this year, a team of German and Australian researchers reported on the effects of TDCS applied to the motor cortex of 24 young healthy volunteers. They found fMRI evidence that the motor cortex was
“disinhibited” during a no-go task (when they were supposed to refrain from pushing a button), in a way that was comparable to the deterioration of inhibition seen in older subjects.
Systems thinkers in all fields know that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Pushing or clamping brain functions in the direction of “enhanced performance” is likely to have some kind of unintended consequence for the brain at large. Priming of the motor cortex by TDCS appears to come at the cost, at least, of losing some capacity to inhibit that same motor cortex. And I conjecture that this downside is likely to show itself in just those moments when its consequences are most significant – when the brain’s executive system is under extra pressure.
The brain is a fantastically complex organ, whose evolutionary role is to optimize its own functionality – and that of the body – to meet the complex needs of changing natural environments. The real holy grail for performers of any kind, athletic or otherwise, is to leverage the brain’s capacity to be a better orchestrator, in its own unique way. And this personalized strategy calls for brain technology that does quite the opposite of priming. Rather, the need is to release the brain from hyper stimulation, and to attain the brain state of fundamental relaxation. Brainwave Optimization and the BRAINtellect-2 are amazing ways to reach that brain state. When the brain is in a relaxed space, its natural capacity for dynamic flexibility can better enable those Jordanesque split-second performance behaviors that make the ultimate real-world difference.
Sung Lee, M.D., M.Sc., M.Phil., is Director of Research at Brain State Technologies®, a neurotechnology company based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Brain State Technologies is the developer of advanced, noninvasive neurotechnology products including Brainwave Optimization®, the BRAINtellect® 2, and HIRREM®. Brainwave Optimization has been used by over 100,000 individuals for purposes of relaxation and self-optimization of brain activity, to support improved sleep and performance optimization. The BRAINtellect 2 is a wearable, self-use device that was developed by Brain State Technologies with support from the US Army Research Office, as a way to support enhanced sleep and circadian rhythm regulation. For more information about Brainwave Optimization, visit www.brainwaveoptimization.com and the BRAINtellect 2, see www.braintellect.com. HIRREM has been studied in clinical trials conducted at Wake Forest School of Medicine, with funding from the US Department of Defense and others, as a way to support recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, insomnia, menopausal hot flashes, migraine, and other conditions. For more information about research on HIRREM, see www.wakehealth.edu/hirrem. For information on Brain State Technologies, please visit www.brainstatetech.com. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Brain State Technologies or Wake Forest School of Medicine.