The Golden State Warriors are looking to a high-tech solution in their efforts to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers and win the NBA championship Thursday evening. Alex Hutchinson in The New Yorker says team members including James Michael McAdoo have been using a device resembling headphones and made by Silicon Valley startup Halo Neuroscience, which makes “neurotechnology for elite athletes.”
The company says the device works through “neuropriming,” which “…uses pulses of energy to increase the excitability of motor neurons, benefiting athletes in two ways: accelerated strength and skill acquisition.” More generically, the technology is called transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS.
The tDCS devices, write Hutchinson, fit in with the team’s “…techno-utopian narrative. Since the bumbling Warriors franchise was purchased by a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, in 2010, it has acquired a reputation as ‘tech’s team,’ playing with the wonky, numbers-driven approach of Sand Hill Road.”
Hutchinson writes that researchers have published more than 2,000 studies over the past five years investigating the technique’s potential for fighting addiction and depression and treading Parkinson’s disease. “One case study, published in the journal Neuroscience Letters in 2014, describes significant improvements in “trunk peak velocity” during tango dancing in a seventy-nine-year-old Argentinian man with moderate Parkinson’s,” writes Hutchinson. However, he adds, “There’s also no question that tDCS hype has long since diverged from what researchers (or the vibrant D.I.Y. tDCS community) have actually demonstrated, triggering a skeptical backlash.”
Does this stuff really work? Hutchinson cites David T. Martin, the director of performance research and development for the Philadelphia 76ers, as recommending that sports scientists stop disparaging the placebo effect and try to harness “belief effects.”
“In a sense, the Halo headphones are a perfect carrier of belief effects,” Hutchinson writes. “They’re plausible. There is real, if disputed, science behind them.” He cites the “somewhat circular power” of the headphones to “..enhance the benefits of believing in the headphones.”