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17 July 2014

Shock horror: people will take serious pain over phoneless boredom

Left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one, boredom made the electric-shock machine irresistible.

By Michael Brooks

It is perhaps the most terrifying discovery of the year so far: people would rather give themselves unpleasant electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts. Roughly 400 undergraduate students at the University of Virginia were first given a shock so powerful that three-quarters of them said they would pay not to experience it a second time. Then they were left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one. The boredom made the electric shock machine irresistible.

It’s tempting to use this finding to support suspicions that digital technologies are creating a generation of idiots but we don’t have to. We know, for instance, that the experience of pain releases a surge of feel-good, pain-relieving chemicals into our bloodstream. This endorphin rush is one of the reasons that eating a painfully hot curry can be pleasurable.

We also know that our body’s relationship with electricity is more than skin-deep. Every biological cell is a tiny battery, with charges flowing in and out. Map your whole body and you’ll find an intricate web of electrical fields that are vital to maintaining your health. That is why we can accelerate or halt the process of wound-healing by applying voltages across breaks in the skin. Get the voltage and the orientation of the electric field right and the cells that carry out repairs are guided to the affected area more efficiently.

Looking deeper in the body, we are finding that electric currents could offer a path to curing some diseases. A number of conditions, including cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, are associated with the disrupted flow of electricity across cell walls. Researchers are working on microelectronic devices that will address these disruptions by pushing just a few charges into or out of cells. No one believes that it will be easy to develop such innovations but there are strong incentives in place for those who want to try.

Last year, the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline announced a $1m reward for the first researchers to create a truly useful implantable “electroceutical” device, which can exchange electrical signals with the body. This month, the US National Institutes of Health announced $248m of new funding for research into mapping the body’s electrical fields and finding ways to tap into their health-care potential.

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Perhaps the most advanced programmes are studies of how electricity can affect the brain’s performance. Tests carried out by US military researchers have shown that feeding a small current through the skull can provoke enormous gains in focus. Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) has applications in improving snipers’ performance – it doubles the speed with which they spot a threat – but could be applied much more widely if proved to be safe and effective. Research has shown that it could accelerate learning and even improve the efficiency with which people walk.

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No one is yet quite sure how TDCS works but the tiny current seems to excite neurons, preparing them to fire more quickly and in a more co-ordinated fashion. So let’s assume, for the sake of maintaining our species’ dignity, that the University of Virginia students were exploring hidden paths to self-improvement. That will make us feel better than facing up to the attention-deficit disaster.

Michael Brooks’s “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” is published by Profile (£12.99)