Getting NeuroStimulated (this time, in real life)

I think it looks cool, but maybe I’m weird.

I finally got my hands on one of PlatoScience’s newly launched neurostimulation headsets, PlatoWork. Previously, I tried out a prototype in an experimental, laboratory setting. This time, I’m borrowing the device from PlatoScience to live with it for a couple of weeks, getting a sense of how it works in real life. I write for the curious who are interested in what it’s like to use use such a device.

A quick re-cap on PlatoWork. The headset is an example in a growing field of technology using non-invasive electronic stimulation to, purportedly, enhance different types of cognition. In this case, PlatoWork has two modes — focus, and create . The former inhibits associative reasoning, the latter enhances it. Go to their website for the science, they’ll do a better job. The device is targeted at creative workers.

The out-there concept of neurostimulation sparks a lot of curiosity, so here’s a blow-by-blow (spark-by-spark?) account of trying it out in the wild. I took it into work, where juggling between creativity and analysis is a big part of my job in innovation at Bang & Olufsen, so I was excited to see the results.

The mechanics. PlatoWork turns on when you click the headset open. There are three connective patches, two for the forehead, one for the crown. These spongey patches first have to be wet with saline solution, which I found deliciously sciencey, though bizarre to do on my desk. Bluetooth up to the device from your phone, and in Plato’s app, you press go on the mindset that suits the task at hand. The device checks connection, and then the stimulation ramps up. It creates a sensation somewhere between a tingle and a burn, like putting on heat salve for muscle pain. At this point, you are stimulating broad swathes of your brain, as the technology isn’t particularly pin-point yet. So, does it do anything?

The first time I used it, I nailed a business case in focus mode. For 80 minutes, my world was uninterrupted excel wizardry. In part, that might be because I locked myself in a room, turned off Wi-Fi and notifications. Yet I think the headset contributed to the zoning into the task at hand. I didn’t immediately feel the difference, but a moment arrives when I found myself more in the flow than usual. In my last article, I described the create mode as giving a sense of engaged daydreaming. The focus mode meanwhile, invoking a sense of attentive sharpness, laced with a hint of tunnel vision.

Interestingly, brains react differently to the modes depending on the types of processing that they are used to. I found that the create mode lit off a few hours of gushing creativity. Meanwhile, the focus mode actually left me a bit exhausted — though effective in and for a while after the 20 minute session.

Killing the to-do list with focus mode on

I noticed a greater difference when I privately used the device. But then, it took a lot of courage to put on the headset in the office. The concept does creep a lot of people out, and it’s a big statement to announce in the office that you are electrically stimulating your brain. That distraction prevented me from really benefiting from it in public or group settings, I think.

PlatoScience have recognised from the beginning that for this thing to get on your head, it needs to look stylish and feel lifestyle. The not too attentive observer might mistake the 3D printed headset for headphones. This helped allay some of the social anxiety of wearing it in the office. Whereas I needed to explain it to the people sat near me and in my meetings, I probably would have attracted more attention wearing a particularly gaudy Christmas hat.

There’s the question of placebo. Surely there must be something about putting on a headset and saying to yourself “I’m going to focus / create for the next hour, give it to me brain!” which provides a helpful kick, independently of whether the device is actually doing anything. But I don’t find this problematic. In fact, I enjoyed actively delimitating and describing the type of thinking I needed for the task at hand, with the ritual of the headset. If coffee is a ritual for alertness, I could imagine devices like PlatoWork becoming a ritual for creative pursuit or analytical focus.

Neurostimulating our intern

Does it hurt? A little bit under the transmitter patches on your forehead, leaving red marks for some. Once, stupidly, I tried to change my jumper with the headset on. I got an electric shock to tell me off. Basically, you shouldn’t mess with the connection, without first turning it off. It also seems to hurt others more than others. Whilst there was a bit of an uncomfortable tingling sensation on my forehead at the beginning of a twenty minute session, I could ignore it. However, my desk neighbour described as “worse than getting a tattoo done on my forehead!” and after two or three minutes pulled off the headset, cursing. Low pain threshold, I say.

He didn’t last long!

PlatoScience recommend not using the headset more than once a day, and for use strictly in a work context. But humans are messy and will not do what they are told. In terms of using it more than the recommended amount, I obviously overdosed on a few occasions and ended up with a weird, bizarre, disassociated headache. But perhaps that’s because I went harder than normal on the to-do list and did some obscene things with an excel document. In the world of neurostimulation, cause and effect are a bit blurry.

More interestingly, was playing with PlatoWork outside of the recommended work context. It was sat on my desk whilst a friend and I were up to some Saturday night G&Ts. Of course, it ended up on our heads with the create mode switched on. What’s cool, was that after a hilariously tangential catch up, we eventually cottoned on to how we were bouncing off conversation topics more than normal. Perhaps the create mode is a social lubricant? This raises the question of how this technology as a whole will end up being used as a stimulant for contexts outside of work.

Don’t drink and neurostimulate. But let’s be honest– you are gonna try it.

In fact, a prediction: I think one day neurostimulation will be a fashion statement and identity marker – A future Macbook and cappuccino for creative professionals. Perhaps we will describe the moods we modulate as we do flavours of coffee or types of wine. Maybe it’ll even be a necessity. In the face of A.I. humans need to strive to be best at those processes we do better than machines — association, empathy, lateral thinking, curiosity, insight. The idea that a machine can enhance that I find exhilarating.

A lot of different technologies are competing for space on people’s heads right now. I’m imagining future iterations of neurostimulation being integrated into more multi-purpose headsets— measurement, stimulation, communication, connectivity, audio. And I can imagine these headsets being developed specifically for certain professions — perhaps, for example, stimulating empathy and focus in service workers, or reflex and will-power for athletes.

My verdict. After a fortnight of using PlatoWork headset I’m reasonably certain it produces some increases in performance, partly because of the stimulation, but partly because of the ritualistic elements. The technology still has some maturing to do. The headset actually looks good. It hurts a little bit — but don’t be a wimp. God knows what it’s doing to your brain in the long run. But when all is said and done, the idea of controlling your mindset from an app is just too cool to not get on board with.