Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Rat-Trap
Ravi Rajakumar, Rat-Trap (detail), 2000. Courtesy of the artist.

In December of 2001, in a small, paper-crowded office on the third floor of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard University, showed me a video in which a colleague used a small paddle made of coiled wires to stop a man from speaking. The man, who appeared to be in his mid-sixties, was seated in a chair in a hospital laboratory. Poised above the left side of his head, just above the temple, was a circular device that looked like a thin rubber donut attached to wires. A voice from offscreen instructed the man to read a series of words off of a piece of paper, and he began. For several seconds, the man spoke normally. Then, again offscreen, a technician pressed a button, and there was a sharp electric crack. Suddenly, the man went mute. His tongue protruded from his mouth, his face contorted, and he could be seen struggling to get words out. No matter how hard he tried, though, he was silent, save for a few dim grunting noises. When the device was finally shut off, after several seconds, the man looked up with a bemused expression on his face, as if to say, “Well, that was odd.”

The technology the researcher had used to perform this experiment, and in which Pascual-Leone is a leading expert, is called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. It is among the less well-known neurological tools to have emerged from the neuroscientific revolution, developed as it was on the periphery of that movement, in a physiology lab in Sheffield, England. TMS works according to the centuries-old principle of electromagnetic induction, in which an alternating magnetic field is used to produce an electrical current in a conductor—in this case, in the neurons of the human cortex. TMS was invented in 1985, but it is only recently, in the past five years or so, that its applications have advanced to the point that it has come to garner some real attention in both the scientific and the general press. It was that attention that had drawn me to Pascual-Leone. But, more important, it was that attention that had drawn him to me, for although Pascual-Leone is among the more prominent researchers of TMS, he is also concerned about it as a potential source or symbol of abuse.

“Let’s say you have these guys in these airplanes trying to detect enemy fighter pilots,” he said. He was referring to a study that showed that TMS, by directly interfering with an area in one hemisphere of the brain, could improve vision in the related eye, on the opposite side of the body. “So if you have one guy on the right side and one guy on the left side with a TMS machine on the parietal lobe improving attention to their side of space, that would be super! They’d kill much more. But is this an OK thing to test? Is it an OK thing to apply?”

He proposed another scenario: “You have all this work on false memories. You have all the work on making up stories. And so you can easily envision experiments aimed at trying to find out—it may not work, but still—trying to find out if you could block a certain area of a circuit and make people unable to lie. Is that the kind of experiment that would be appropriate?”

More from Issue 2

Issue 2 Happiness

Novelists said again and again they would never represent happiness.

Issue 2 Happiness

The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction.

Issue 2 Happiness

A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.

Issue 2 Happiness

As soon as you hear, “We’re all writers here, what’s to disagree about?” you know we’re sunk, intellectually.

Issue 2 Happiness

I am depressed. Things are worse here than I thought. It’s a mess and what’s more it’s a provincial mess.

Issue 2 Happiness
Among the Believers
Issue 2 Happiness

A curse is a formula that becomes a doom. The two-party system is the curse of American political life.

Issue 2 Happiness
Babel in California
Issue 2 Happiness

In this gentle and permissive way we were enjoined to get high on pot and take up oral sex, but not do any favors for Philip Morris.

Issue 2 Happiness
Trends in Network Television Comedy
Issue 2 Happiness
The Reaper
Issue 2 Happiness
The Vice President’s Daughter
Issue 2 Happiness
The Concept of Experience
Issue 2 Happiness
Three Poems
Issue 2 Happiness

Diana slides out of bed naked, feeling as if she has learned something about Coetzee in her sleep.

Issue 2 Happiness
At the 2003 International Security Conference
Issue 2 Happiness

Hitchens might want to insist, contrarily, that although he has changed his allies, he has not changed his opinions.

Issue 2 Happiness

For people stunned by the Seattle demonstrations, Klein’s book was a field guide; for people inspired by them, it was a bible.

Issue 2 Happiness

What a strange book Philip Roth has written.

Issue 2 Happiness

A German friend asked me if graphic novels were erotic. I said, “No, they’re neurotic.”

Issue 2 Happiness

The growing influence of the Italian philosopher’s work seems in many respects to depend on his remarkable sense of taste.

Issue 2 Happiness

Keith Gessen replies: The genital flag?

More by this Author

October 28, 2011

Carla Blumenkranz discusses her piece “Captain Midnight.” This unusual portrait follows a young Gordon Lish in the early ’60s…

February 1, 2012
Episode 6: The Book is Good
July 29, 2011

MoMA was not just charging for its product, it was branding modern art as a luxury.

August 31, 2011

In this installment of our monthly podcast, Daniel Smith interviews Jo Ann Beard about her recent novel, In Zanesville. …

August 3, 2011

In this discussion with author Sam Lipsyte, podcast hosts Liz Hynes and Daniel Smith chronicle Lipsyte’s journey from his role…

June 24, 2011

We are proud to announce the launch of the n+1 podcast, a monthly conversation on arts, culture, and literature hosted by…