The Warriors’ Brain-Zapping Devices Might Be Placebos — But Placebos Work

Several of the Warriors players, it seems, have taken to wearing headphones manufactured by a Silicon Valley company called Halo Neuroscience, which claims that the device “will accelerate gains in strength, explosiveness and dexterity” through a vaguely science-y-sounding mechanism its marketing team calls “neuropriming.” And, sure, fine, there is a chance this could be true. As science writer Alex Hutchinson notes in The New Yorker this week, the headphones use transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, and some intriguing new studies have indeed found evidence that tDCS does provide some measurable cognitive benefits. (It seems to at least temporarily improve learning skills, for one.)

Whether this particular device really does provide any benefits to pro athletes — well, there’s not (yet) much evidence to support that claim. But, really, the more interesting question here might be this: Does that even matter? In a way, whether or not the headphones truly “work” is almost beside the point, as Hutchinson points out:

This isn’t because athletes, as a group, are idiots. It’s a rational response to the huge rewards that even an infinitesimal improvement in performance can bring—and a reflection of the curious links between mind and body. If I hand you a golf ball and say, “This has been the lucky ball today,” you’ll sink more putts than if I just say, “Here’s the ball,” as a famous study on lucky charms once demonstrated. That’s a consequence of what psychologists call self-efficacy: the belief that you’re going to swing the club (or shoot a thirty-foot three-pointer) accurately helps you do it less tentatively and, ultimately, more accurately.

In 2013, for instance, two sports scientists published a paper in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in which they essentially made the case for lying to their athletes — that is, taking advantage of something they dub the “belief effect.” As an example of this, they point out that things like caffeine and sports drinks have individually been shown to give an athlete a small, but measurable, boost in performance: about 1 to 3 percent. And yet when an athlete tries many of these things at once, the “marginal gains do not aggregate” — the benefit seen remains the same, no matter how many of these “ergogenic aids” an athlete piles on. “[M]ost evidence-based supplements merely allow an athlete to ‘dig a little deeper,’” they write. “Sport scientists have often observed that just believing in a novel and exciting performance-enhancing treatment can produce improvements in performance regardless of introducing a real treatment effect.”

It’s the placebo effect, in other words. But here’s the thing: As that phrase is colloquially used, it is often meant to suggest that someone is being fooled. But in her book Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant considers an alternative understanding of the placebo effect. In an interview earlier this year with Science of Us, Marchant said:

[T]aking a placebo also has real, measurable, biological effects on the brain and body — similar to the effects caused by drugs. So that’s kind of another meaning to “the placebo effect” — it’s specifically talking about these changes. And that’s what’s surprising about these effects — people often think if you take a placebo to relieve your pain, for example, that that’s sort of an imaginary effect. It’s just a change in perception — maybe you just thought you were in pain when really you were not. But what neuroscientists are finding are these real, biological changes that can be measured. For example, a placebo painkiller can trigger the release of endorphins in the brain. And these are actual pain-relieving chemicals — they’re actually what pain-relieving drugs like morphine are designed to release. So the placebo painkiller is actually working through the same biochemical pathway as the drug is.

The brain interacts with the body in mysterious ways. Whether or not you’re wearing brain-zapping headphones.

The Benefits of Placebos in Sports Science