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Can the ‘spirit of sport’ withstand brainpower of superhuman performance?

We need to talk about transcranial direct-current stimulation.
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What if I told you I could make you capable of scoring the winning penalty in a World Cup final, or holing the winning putt on the final hole of the Open Championship? You that would bottle a tiddler from three feet to win a fiver from your mates? And all you have to do is strap on a helmet that sends electromagnetic pulses into your brain.

Wait! Wait! Come back!

I came across transcranial direct-current stimulation (TDCS, which we had better call it from here on) while reading Homo Deus, the bestseller mega-hit by Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari.

It’s a follow-up to his even bigger unit-shifting pop-anthropology sensation Sapiens. Where that book explained where humankind came from, Homo Deus suggests where it might be going.

Harari’s thesis is that God is dead, replaced by humanism, the modern belief that the meaning of life is found by listening to the innate desires and individual voices within all of us.

Arguing that humanism will go the way of previously discarded religions, Harari says our so-called individual personality is just a jumble of biological algorithms, processing information like a computer programme: Basically, we’re a sort of fleshy Commodore 64.

That’s where TDCS comes in. Medical researchers have long experimented in the treatment of diseases, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and depression by transmitting electric currents via electrodes implanted on the brain.

The idea is that the pulses can suppress or promote activity in various parts of the brain, supporting the notion that our thoughts are just circuits to be overridden, rather than the cherished parts of one sacred, singular personality.

In one memorable passage from the book, Harari points to US military experiments which use brain stimulation to enhance the battlefield performance of soldiers. He quotes the experiences of a reporter with New Scientist, Sally Adee, who tests a prototype transcranial helmet in a simulated military exercise.

Adee first enters the simulator as ‘herself’ and is immediately reduced to a quivering wreck as she is assailed by heavily armed, virtual, masked men. Then, she tries it again, this time after being buzzed with the brain helmet. The reporter is transformed: She begins to coolly pick off the attackers, breathing calmly and reloading before taking out the next one. Before she knows it the simulation is over and the bodies of imaginary terrorists lie strewn around her.

She is stunned by the experience: “My brain without self-doubt is a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head… I also started to have a lot of questions. Who was I apart from the angry bitter gnomes that populate my mind and drive me to failure because I’m too scared to try?”

Imagine having access to that sort of self-possession while trying to take a few quid off your golfing pals at the weekend? Now, imagine what an elite sportsperson could do with it? The area of brain stimulation is in its infancy — many scientists question the methodology of research into its benefits and long-term side effects — but it is already being used in the real world and it’s hardly surprising that sport has been one of the early adopters.

In 2016, a Silicon Valley start-up called Halo Neuroscience launched ‘Halo Sport’, a headset that sends pulses to the brain in order to boost athlete performance. It doesn’t claim to augment the personality in the way the US military’s ‘attention helmet’ does, but Halo say it can improve results by stimulating the motor cortex while athletes train, helping the brain to develop ‘muscle memory’ quicker.

If you watched this year’s Winter Olympics, you will have seen brain stimulation. The US team used Halo Sport — it’s perfectly suited to winter sports; they spend so long on chairlifts, that anything which maximises training time is a godsend, while the firm also has testimonials from NFL players and countless triathlon and endurance athletes.

Is it cheating, though? Some think so, and have called for WADA to outlaw it as ‘neuro-doping’. WADA bans a substance or technique based on three criteria: Is it performance-enhancing? Is it potentially harmful? And does it violate the ‘spirit of sport’?

The answer to those three questions is: “Probably”, “don’t know yet”, and “what does that even mean?” It suggests this is another murky debate which the bedraggled anti-doping body will have to address sooner or later.

By the way, did I mention that the US national track cycling team is one of Halo’s latest clients?

Ah yes, cycling, the battleground on which the very definition of doping and anti-doping is being fought.

As if WADA didn’t have enough going on with Team Sky salbutamol shenanigans, TUEs, micro-dosing, state-sponsored stitch-ups and all the rest. Add the potentially transformative effects of brain stimulation and you can see why TDCS — undetectable by testers, according to its early proponents — might just be the final straw.

But if the thrust of Homo Deus is to be believed, anti-doping and the ‘spirit of sport’ could all soon be outdated concepts anyway.

Harari argues that since it’s been proven we are just a bunch of hormonal micro-processors ambling around the earth, the desire to be superhuman will replace the celebration of what makes us human. Healthcare will focus less on healing the sick — they won’t be needed, with robots taking over the workforce — and more on augmenting the healthy.

It’s happening already, with cosmetic surgery and the popularity of so-called ‘wearables’, and we will continue to use technology to make us live longer and better, handing over ever more control to the likes of Google and Amazon or whichever all-powerful algorithmic hive mind owns our biometric data.

So, if anti-doping was trying to preserve the humanity — or ‘spirit’ — of sport, won’t it seem hopelessly outdated when the direction of civilisation is to leave humans behind, and create a permanently networked master race, controlled by electrodes strapped to our puny brains, at least until our artificially intelligent masters decide to take over and get rid of us altogether?

On the plus side, at least you’ll sort out your wobbly putting game.