Technology with attitude

Foc.us headset trial run

5

Recently we published our initial assessment of the Foc.us Transcranial Direct Current Stimulator (TDCS) headset. However, that article let open the question of whether or not the headset improves the gaming performance. In short: Yes, it does! (for me). However, that ‘Yes’ comes with several strings attached. Those strings are important to understand if you are considering using this headset for yourself.

First I’ll elaborate on my experience. I came home after a full day of work – tired – and needing to play some video games. Coincidentally, I also need to try out the Foc.us headset in order to write this post. So I put the headset on in such a way that I avoided the phosphenes, and picked a setting.

The Foc.Us headset comes with 4 different stimulation patterns (Sine-wave, Constant-current, Pulsed current with offset, and Random-noise current), and 3 different stimulation intensities (0.8mA, 1.2mA, 1.5mA).

Two additional settings will become available once the app is released (Sham, 2.0mA). For this trial I chose a Sine-wave pattern and 1.5mA, which is the maximum available amperage.

That setting actually hurt, so I took the headset off and scaled down the amperage to 0.8mA for attempt 2. This was much more comfortable, and the headset stayed on for the full 10 minutes.

With the stimulation complete, it was time to pick an adequate test game. I opted for Aladdin on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The last time I played SNES was months ago, and at that point I had been stuck on the final boss for days. This time, after 10 minutes of tdcs and 45 minutes of intense focus (pun intended) I had beat the game!

Post TDCS Victory: End title from Aladdin for SNES

I’d love to believe that the headset magically enhanced my SNES skills, but I really can’t say that for certain. I have no real way of de-interlacing whether the headset worked because of  pre-frontal cortex – focus enhancing – stimulation, or because I really didn’t want to have to admit to the internet that I couldn’t beat that game.  In reality, gamer pride is just one of the reasons the headset might have helped for reasons other than increasing focus.

Don’t get me wrong – there is scientific evidence that pre-frontal cortex stimulation using tdcs can increase performance on working memory and probabilistic classification tasks, both of which capture elements that contribute to gaming performance. However, tdcs in a laboratory setting is quite different from tdcs in this context, and even then the results of those studies are far from clear.

Picking up the SNES controller once the stimulation period was over.
Picking up the SNES controller once the stimulation period was over

Furthermore, these studies all have ways of controlling for which part of the brain is being stimulated by the tdcs system. This is important due to the fact that every person’s brain is different, and different parts of the brain behave differently when stimulated. In fact, other studies have found that stimulation of motor cortex and not pre-frontal cortex facilitates performance on a serial reaction time task – another skill that is necessary to succeed in video games.

Foc.us headset on the provided stand

Motor cortex and Pre-frontal cortex are situated very closely. Without an MRI of your own brain, and a sophisticated tracking system, there is no real way of knowing which region you are stimulating. Now, I don’t have a tracking system, but I do have an MRI of my brain, so I can say with relative certainty that the electrodes were stimulating pre-frontal cortex or pre-motor cortext, and probably not primary motor cortex (…but please never cite this as ‘scientific evidence’).

Approximate delineations of brain regions. Note the proximity of Pre-frontal, Pre-motor, and Primary Motor Areas
(Very) Approximate location of stimulation in my brain based on external electrode position. Note that the cursor is only pointing to one side of the brain, when in reality the stimulation was happening on both sides.

In addition to all of this, it is necessary to take into account the placebo effect. This effect means that simply believing that the headset improves performance, will improve your performance regardless of whether or not the stimulation has an effect. Once the headset app is released you will have the option of trying a “Sham” condition that will start stimulation as normal and then slowly turn it off. This means that you can test whether or not the headset is working because of brain stimulation or because of placebo. Note that this will only be a true test if you honestly can’t tell if you are being “shammed” or not.

So did the Foc.Us gamer headset enhance my game performance? Yes! Was it because of increased attention, or increased reaction time? Maybe a bit of both, or maybe neither.  Was it because of the placebo effect? It definitely played a role. Without a series of controlled studies I really can’t say what happened. Hopefully future studies will address this topic directly!

Will it work for you? I can’t promise that it will, but is it worth a try? Definitely, as long as you use it responsibly 🙂