human guinea pig

I Tried a Brain-Zapping Gadget and It Made Me Feel High

Photo: Collage illustrations by Eugenia Loli/Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0/US

Before I can have high-frequency electrical currents shot to my cranial nerves, I need to tell an app what I want: Energy or Calm. I am sitting in the technicolored Boston headquarters of a company called Thync, and these are the two main options on its new, Bluetooth-enabled device — a sleek white module slapped to my right temple, joined by a sticky electrode strip that tucks behind my ear.

Energy is like a cup of coffee and Calm is like a glass of wine,” explains Sumon Pal, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who, alongside a group of other fancy neuroscientists, co-founded Thync. The product is not only targeting the recent wave of brain-hackers who post about electrical stimulation on Reddit and make nine-volt-battery crowns on YouTube, but also people such as myself — who like coffee, wine, and paying $299 (Thync’s price) to live their best life.

Regarding my Girl, Interrupted–based concerns, Pal explains that unlike electro-convulsive therapy, as well as its gentler cousin transcranial direct current stimulation, Thync does not zap the cortex directly; it instead hits brain-signaling nerves in the face, neck, and back, either suppressing the stress response (Calm) or igniting fight-or-flight (Energy).

I choose Energy first. Kirsten, a 24-year-old marketing associate in a Thync-branded fleece, says she favors Energy these days, too, now that the company is in launch mode: “I’m off the walls forever if I drink coffee too late. So it’s nice to have a way of feeling clear without caffeine.”

A minute or so into the ten-minute session (programs run between 5 and 20 minutes, depending on how relaxed or alert you want to feel, and can be repeated as needed throughout the day), the undulating “vibes” are in full force. Michelle, a research associate in a matching fleece, instructs me to play with the app’s plus or minus buttons: a squeezing feeling at my temple means I’ve gone too high, itching behind the ear indicates too low. By minute four, I’ve found a place of mild tingling — like a sex toy on low battery — which is supposedly the sweet spot.

The experience is … confusing. When it ends, I think I feel a kick of adrenaline — or was that the burning reality that I’ve just been electro-shocked? As I exit through the Copley Mall (Thync’s office are in the same building), the store signs seem brighter — or am I just in the mood to shop? On the Amtrak back to New York, I transcribe the day’s interviews without any Instagram breaks — but don’t I always focus better on trains?

The studies on this type of treatment are very, very discrepant,” says Dr. Ashesh Dinesh Mehta, a neurosurgeon at North Shore University Hospital. “When you stimulate the cranial nerves you can alter brain activity; now, how that translates into a benefit is a little more suspect.” Adds Dr. Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Great Myths of the Brain, “Given how finely tuned our brains are, people have to ask themselves whether they want to play around with devices like this, when the scientists [behind them] freely admit they don’t actually know what the effects on the brain are.”

But before I can declare the findings inconclusive, I still need to test Thync’s Calm function. I have my chance a week later, when Pal is in New York.

He’s coming from a meeting with Beyoncé’s head of digital; I’m coming from a meeting where no one seemed to like my ideas. We sit in a conference room that used to be a closet, and it’s the same drill: module over my temple, adhesive electrical circuit down my face (now stopping at my neck rather than ear to activate a different nerve), trial and error to get the vibe just right. The session is winding down when Pal asks me if I’m still stressed out about my meeting — and that’s when I realize that my words feel very far away. My neurons do not seem drunk so much as high as fuck.

When I leave the closet, colleagues I tell about the demo say things like “Your energy is really mellow” and “Do you want to take a nap in my office?” One suggests I avoid direct eye contact; another discourages me from crossing busy Canal Street to get lunch. I make a mental list of when this feeling would be useful: great for getting on an airplane; bad for getting behind the wheel of a car. Definitely bad for finishing a day’s work.

A few hours later, I have a phone call scheduled with Dr. Mehta. I’d thought my buzz had worn off, but halfway through the interview I notice my tape recorder has stopped working, and I do nothing. I’ll worry about it tomorrow. “The placebo effect,” Mehta tells me just before our conversation cuts out, “might be the most powerful tool we have in medicine.”

A Brain-Zapping Gadget Made Me Feel High