WIP [ITP Blog]

Citizen Science - Week 11 [Neurohacking Final]

November 15, 2018

Previous posts related to my neurohacking project:

Below is a complete documentation blog post for my Citizen Science final project NeuroFit Jr.

Eleven weeks ago, Stefani asked us to draw citizen science related topics from a box. We were to produce midterm and final projects based on these topics. I drew “neurohacking”, a subject I was not familiar with and a term I hadn’t heard before. Eleven weeks later, I’ve read countless articles and studies, listened to a handful of podcasts, spoken to members of the scientific community, and built two speculative design projects about neurohacking. I hope to continue to dive into more citizen science topics and explore the intersection between “traditional science” and artistic expressions of its subject matter.

Hacking The Brain

Neurohacking is generally defined as voluntarily altering brain functions to optimize performance and well-being. Common examples that have developed in recent times include biochemical technologies (e.g. ingested drugs such as nootropics), neurofeedback devices (e.g. EEG machines), and transcranial technologies (e.g. tDCS). The pursuit to actively change our neurological functions, however, isn’t new to humans. Neurohacking advocates reference meditation and entering trances states as other forms of neurohacking for their brain altering effects.

Early in my research, I discovered Don Vaughn’s neurohacking TED talk, which introduced me to the concept of “neuroplasticity” — the fact that human brains are flexible and adaptable, that the brain is less like a static computer and more like impressionable clay. I then listened to Radiolab’s 9-Volt Nirvana episode, which introduced the practice of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) — the eventual subject of my citizen science project NeuroFit.


The genesis of NeuroFit can be traced back to the first workshopping class we had in week 4.

workshop 1

This exercise led to the question:

What do we as a society value and consider “normal” neuro-activity and behavior?

And the eventual speculative design project, Neurofit, to pose that question. So I fabricated a speculative prototype of a consumer adult tDCS device out of an old soldering base and broken headphones found in the ITP junk shelf:

neurofit 1

neurofit 2

neurofit 3

neurofit 4

Images of this prototype was then used in my midterm startup splash page presentation: https://www.neurofit.club/.

Think Of The Children

The feedback I received on my Neurofit midterm project pushed me to incorporate two more aspects to my final:

  • Incorporate more data and insights from actual scientific studies to give the product a stronger, realistic, and balanced foundation
  • Explore additional forms a neurohacking device could take since consumer adult tDCS devices already exist in the market

This led to the more sensitive idea of selling a children neurohacking device marketed to parents at the next workshopping class.

workshop 2

workshop 2 bottom

I also dug deeper into studies on tDCS devices, going beyond news articles on the subject and into published studies on the subject.

Committed to this new kid-focused direction for Neurofit to amplify the ethics and market demand for a consumer neurohacking device, I fabricated a new prototype using Kmart earmuffs, sponges, and LEDs.

neurofit jr 5

neurofit jr 6

neurofit jr 7

neurofit jr 8

neurofit jr 9

neurofit jr 10

Then I contacted my friend George and asked if he and his daughter would be comfortable being models for the new Neurofit Jr tDCS device.

neurofit jr 11

neurofit jr 12

User Testing

While the prototype Neurofit Jr wasn’t an actual, working tDCS device (the headband lit up an LED strip instead of administering an electrical current), Stefani recommended I user test the product and its selling points with an audience unfamiliar with neurohacking. I used this deck as my testing prompt. My testers ranged from single classmates, to peers with children, and even a professor with grandchildren. Despite their diverse connection to children, I recorded some common themes:

  • Selling safety is important, especially if its a product targeted towards children — images with a parent present communicate a sense of supervision
  • Can the product show tangible results (e.g. Billy uses Neurofit Jr, David does not, after 3 months of Chinese language lessons Billy knows 700 more characters than David)
  • That there is a yuppie, privilege parental market driven by a competitiveness and fear of their child falling behind that could drive demand for this product
  • The importance of play in a child’s learning experience
  • That this product is slightly terrifying and cringe-worthy

One perspective I unfortunately wasn’t able to collect was from a father, my user testers with children were all mothers. I’m curious if the photos of my friend and his daughter would resonate differently with a father.

The Final

I combined all of this feedback, additional, research, and images into the new Neurofit Jr product site. The feedback I received on my final presentation challenged the believability of the product. Both Daniel and Brian recommmended that if additional real science was incorporated into the presentation, it could produce a reaction in which people are brought to the edge of reasonable science and pushed to consider significant ethical dilemmas by minor fantastical element (similar to Michael Crichton novel).

Future Thoughts

Some thoughts and considerations if I were to continue this project:

  • Add more media/content elements that share the real science behind tDCS technology (pull in specific details, numbers from studies cited)
  • Ground the product in personal anecdote (similar to a weight-loss commercial) to clarify the deliverable promise of Neurofit Jr to parents and their children
  • Simulate community and press response to such a product (similar to my gene drive presentation, because they play an important role in how the public recieves and embraces new technologies that challenge our existing way of life

Adrian Bautista

A perpetual work in progress blog documentating my NYU ITP projects. Words are my own.