Skip to main content

That Sweet, Sweet Voltage: The Electric Addiction

Futurama has a fantastic episode titled “Hell is Other Robots,” in which the show’s main robot, Bender, turns to the seedier side of robot life and develops a heroin-like addiction to electricity. Bender has to get his fix from an outlet or battery; otherwise he gets shaky, nervous, and irritable. The episode pitches the idea that if robots were like humans, electricity would take the place of hard drugs. But an article in the Daily India suggests that electricity might be the vice of robots and humans alike.

In the Indian district of Uttar Pradesh' Lalitpur, a village priest needs to have a small electrical stimulus before he can fall asleep each night. The priest gets his electricity from home appliances or live wires plugged into the wall. He sometimes leaves the wires in his mouth, under his arms, or behind his ears for the entire night. The article doesn’t say exactly how strong the stimuli is, or if the priest prefers a short jolt to a long tingle, but doctors in the village believe he’s built up a tolerance to it after using it for four years.

The article seemed like a fluke, until I read that the priest used to be addicted to drugs like opium and marijuana. While some villagers think the priest is divine for his ability to handle the impulses, he believes they’re what have kept him clean. Instead of doping up on traditional drugs, he satisfies his cravings with the electrical stimulus.

It turns out that electrical stimulus has been used as a treatment for alcohol addiction for a few years now. Cranial Electrical Stimulation (CES) units have drastically improved the success rates of some alcoholism treatment centers in the US. The patients attach the ends of the device to their earlobes and receive a small current “similar to the electrical pulses in the body.” Patients who were constantly re-entering rehabilitation have found long-term success with the devices, and one treatment adviser thinks it’s the miracle they’ve been looking for. Somehow, the electrical stimulus has satisfied or taken the place of the chemical stimulus they used to seek in alcohol and other drugs.

I was thinking about electrical stimulus on the brain, when I recalled that not all electrical treatments are similar to the ‘mild pulses of the body’. Electroshock therapy (EST) uses enough electricity to cause nerve damage in a few seconds, and can kill a person in a few minutes. It was discovered in the 1930’s and is used to treat severe cases of manic-depression and schizophrenia. In the film A Beautiful Mind, mathematician John Nash undergoes EST, only to be left slightly handicapped and still suffering from schizophrenia. In fact it has been said that considering its damaging side effects, the treatment may have been used too frequently in its early days, when doctors understood it even less. But use of the treatment continued because in some cases, EST yielded amazingly positive results. Cases of manic depression and schizophrenia practically disappeared in patients who showed no response to drug treatment. Somehow, the electrical stimulus drastically altered a malfunctioning process of the brain.

Today, EST is used less frequently, and only on patients with severe symptoms who don’t respond to drug treatment. And sometimes it shows remarkable, positive results; saving people from otherwise untreatable mental illness. What makes these results all the more incredible is that neurologists still don’t really know what happens to the brain during EST. Questions remain such as why the treatment works for some people and not for others; why it can cure manic-depression and schizophrenia, but not other ailments; and especially why it can have such dramatically different effects than chemical treatment. And in the cases presented here, we have to wonder why it is that electrical stimuli can do the equivalent of chemical stimuli for the Indian priest, and then do what chemicals can’t do for those cured by EST. But it works for some people, and that’s enough reason to move forward with both treatment and investigation. The Indian priest’s self medication is an example of neuroscience having data but no solid theory.

The idea of an "electricity addiction" might sound funny, but when I Googled the phrase, I got a lot more hits than I expected. I soon realized that most of them were referring to the fact that even though we don’t all stick our tongues in the toaster every the morning, America’s energy usage suggests that we’re all fairly hooked on that sweet, sweet voltage.


  1. Thanks "Physics Buzz" for the informative and entertaining article "That Sweet, Sweet Voltage:..." I plan to share it and your web site (which I just discovered)with my children.
    With great appreciation, W. Winegar-Bagley

  2. Thank you W. Winegar-Bagley. If we can reach out to just one family, it's all worth it.

  3. Drug use is a painful business. Because of the pain and struggle involved we may search endlessly for the one cause or cure to end the madness. We become afraid, and through this fear cling to any shred of evidence we can find to lift us from our state.
    This is a comprehensive addiction portal focusing on topics of alcohol and drug abuse.

  4. Addiction treatment and recovery resources for the addict and their families.

  5. Wow that great!!! Technologies nowadays are so advance that even through electricity you will now be treated/healed in addiction. A method and therapeutic apparatus for treating addictions, maladies, compulsions, and the like, with the apparatus having a pair of electrodes carried by a housing and in communication with an electric current source to provide an electric impulse to the electrodes during treatment. The electric impulse passes through soft tissues of the mouth, preferably the tongue, to stimulate nerves of the mouth in the treatment of the addiction or malady. Stimulation of oral nerves is communicated to the brain where addictive cravings or symptoms relating to maladies undergoing treatment are curbed and preferably eliminated.
    This is a good invention...

    Suffering from an addiction. This website has a lot of great resources and treatment centers.

  6. Hi.. Drug addiction cause more illness. A person who is addicted for drug or alcohol. He must be totally upset by physically or mentally.



    Problem With Drugs or Alcohol? This Drug Rehab has Helped Thousands of Individuals to Recover. Drug Rehab

  7. The electric impulse passes through soft tissues of the mouth,referably the tongue, to stimulate nerves of the mouth in the treatment of the addiction or malady.
    Andrew William

  8. Marijuana addiction treatment centers are very helpfully centers to person who wants to overcome their marijuana addiction problem. These centers provide many effective treatments and services to their patients. This site helps the clients to find out the best marijuana addiction treatment centers for their addiction.

  9. For phencyclidine addictions recovery an antibody based drug is used. It gives instant safety against the constant abuse of phencyclidine, offering new promise for a presently not curable addiction. The method uses monoclonal antibodies identical copies of animal antibodies cloned and reproduced in the laboratory to prevent or slow the entry of PCP into the brain. In animal studies, just one injection curbed the effects of PCP for at least two weeks-a period equivalent to one to two months in humans.

  10. The drug addictions recovery center offers no-cost help so appropriate decisions can be made. There are many websites, directories and journal contains current information about rehab, treatment, detox, family intervention, drug issues, cocaine abuse, crack addiction, alcohol abuse, heroin, crystal meth, methadone, opiate addiction and how to help the alcoholic. People need to be able to get the best possible help, quickly and easily.

  11. There are so many types of addictions but some of them creates in there imaginations.

  12. Marijuana addiction is a phenomenon experienced by more than 150,000 individuals each year who enter treatment for their proclaimed addiction to marijuana. Marijuana addiction is characterized as compulsive, often uncontrollable marijuana craving, seeking, and use, even when the individual knows that marijuana use is not in his best interest. Marijuana addiction could be defined as chronically making the firm decision not to use marijuana followed shortly by a relapse due to experiencing overwhelming compulsive urges to use marijuana despite the firm decision not to. This contradiction is characteristic of an addiction problem.

  13. Addiction to low dosages of electricity administered over prolonged periods of time (daily usage for years at a time) is arguably the source of fascination the Scientologists have for the E-Meter device.


  14. Wrong information. John Nash received INSULIN shock therapy.

  15. Most people never mean to become addicted to shopping, is an addiction, like so many other bad habits like drinking too much or overeat. The only thing about being addicted to shopping is that really has no physical consequence that you feel bad, but there are plenty of emotional distress compensate. Shopaholics also have difficulty covering their addiction like any other dependent. When entering invoices or no money to pay the electric bill, they might have to explain to your partner what happened to the money or make excuses for loans from friends or family.

  16. Alternative use would be for desalination. Removing salt from water is going to be big business in the next 20 years....


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?