RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you want to get good at something, whether it's piano or golf, we know what works - practice. Do something over and over and over, and your brain eventually masters that activity. But what if your brain could be so ready to learn that you didn't have to practice something so many times to master it? Some top athletes are training with headsets that are supposed to stimulate their brain cells, make their brains more ready to learn so practice is more effective. NPR's Elise Hu has been trying it out as part of our video series on how emerging technologies may shape our future. It is called Future You With Elise Hu. And she spoke with Steve.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi there.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
INSKEEP: OK, so I watched your video, and you've got this thing on. And it looks like one of those old-timey, like, 1990s big, old stereo headsets. What is it really?
HU: That's right. It's a headset that looks like headphones like Beats by Dre, but it's actually a brain-stimulating device that can zap you with tiny currents, so you don't feel anything. The electrical charge is super low...
INSKEEP: But you're getting shocked.
HU: Yes (laughter). You are supposed to wear it for about 20 minutes before you practice this golf swing or squats or lunges, any repetitive activity that you could get better at over time. And what it's doing is it's priming your brain before you do that activity. So to try it out here at NPR West, I decided to learn something I've never done before - vertical jump.
OK, so then...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get comfortable and then just jump straight up. Boom, there it is.
NATE ROTT, BYLINE: Nice.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So you're looking at 14 inches on the dot.
HU: OK, 14 inches.
ROTT: That's more than a foot.
HU: So I needed to actually train on jumping over four to six weeks while wearing this headset. And then NPR reporter Nate Rott did not get a headset. And we trained together.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HU: Oh, that was much longer than mine. Jeez.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Seventeen inches.
ROTT: Got three inches on you.
HU: Oh, my gosh. So he's already...
So this isn't...
INSKEEP: He's the control group, like the placebo. OK, fine.
HU: This isn't exactly a perfect science experiment, but we wanted to try this to see if I could improve better than he did. So for another month after this, I used this headset before working out. Nate then worked out with me, but he didn't get a headset.
INSKEEP: OK, so what's the big thing you're trying to get at by testing your vertical jump?
HU: So the entire video series Future You is about exploring where new technologies are going to take us by 2050. And in this case, what we're looking at is electrical stimulation for your brain. The technical term is called transcranial direct-current stimulation. We are still waiting for more of a body of clinical data on this. We do know that one DARPA-funded study showed as much as a 40% improvement in performance in primates.
INSKEEP: DARPA - that's the Pentagon science guys.
HU: That's right. They are testing this on the military. The one I used actually does have a contract with the DoD. It's from a company called Halo. And I asked the founder of the company where he thinks this might lead us a few decades into the future. He's a Stanford trained MD named Dr. Dan Chao.
DAN CHAO: Like, could we be more attentive and focused as a society? You know, advance ourselves, advance humanity - that's a good thing.
HU: So you're expecting kind of a super cognition - right? - like advanced memory capabilities, advanced focus capabilities.
CHAO: Advanced focus and - like, I would use it when I needed to get meaningful work done. If I could have had a neuro stimulator to help me with focus, I would've been a better student.
HU: If humans can be upgraded this much, then are we creating different classes of humans? Or even with athletes, there's asterisks by those who used steroids.
CHAO: There's legal performance enhancement that's all around us, like drinking coffee. It's been identified by the World Anti-Doping Association as performance enhancing, yet it's legal. What WADA considers illegal is things that are unsafe to the health of the athlete and against the spirit of the sport. I would argue it isn't.
INSKEEP: OK, it's said for the moment it's cool for athletes to use this as they train, which brings us back to your vertical jump, Elise. How'd you do?
HU: So not scientific but after about a month of training with the headset...
...I was able to increase my vertical jump by 11%.
INSKEEP: Is that good? I don't know.
HU: Well, it was pretty surprising, even for me.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You got some ups.
ROTT: Serious ups.
INSKEEP: How'd Nate do? - the control group.
HU: Nate Rott only increased his vertical jump by 8%. So I like to think I won.
INSKEEP: Well, Elise, thanks very much for the insights - really appreciate it.
HU: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: Now all of this is on video. You can see it for yourself. The series is called Future You With Elise Hu. It rhymes.
HU: It rhymes.
INSKEEP: And you can find it at npr.org/futureyou.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKINNY WILLIAMS AND STEPHEN GOODSON'S "POP STAR EXPLOSION")
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