Sometimes talking things through—or popping a Zoloft—is just not enough to jumpstart your head. A growing field of science is now working to literally rewire your brain waves for the ultimate bio hack.
“We are having problems with psychiatry because we miss the autonomic and neurophysiological aspects,” says psychiatrist Hasan Asif, cofounder of Field, an upscale private membership club devoted to brain optimization. “To really evaluate a client, you need to check from top to bottom, from head to toe—neurochemically, neurophysiologically, and biochemically.”
Field is part lab clinic, part therapist’s office, bringing together a team of scientists, doctors, and a life coach to tune up its decidedly 1% clientele.
They study your mental history and emotional health while analyzing your biofeedback: brainwaves, skin conductance, respiration, heart rate variability, and neurophysiology. And yes, electrodes do get attached to your head because monitoring and changing the synchronization of the brain’s energy waves is very much what the startup does.
The team promises to help move members toward a bevy of goals—more creativity, less stress, “heightened awareness,” or enhanced athletic prowess. Its therapies can reportedly even increase one’s sex drive.
“You can take it in really any direction,” says cofounder Devon White.
The philosophy is based on the premise that any given mental state or ego state depends on an underlying autonomic (involuntary nervous) system, explains Asif. That is the same system that makes your heart race when you’re excited or your palms sweaty when nervous.
While traditional psychiatry approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy are useful, they’re ultimately limited by lack of full body data, Asif says. Field aims to employ different modalities with electro brain modulation, adjusting theta and beta—increasing this and quieting that—like one would control a switchboard.
“It’s a mix of high tech and holistic,” explains White. “We look at your brain and see where you need tweaking, turning some things up and some things down.”
Noodle tinkering isn’t cheap
Field’s unorthodox biohacking treatments range from several days to routine appointments stretched over months or its popular seven-day retreat. The New York startup, founded six months ago, says its clients are top figures from sports, finance, tech, law, and entertainment. These are people already performing to some degree at peak, but all share the same concern: How do I get my mind to work even better? That could mean faster or more relaxed. Or basically, less distracted.
Of course, such noodle tinkering doesn’t come cheap: Individual sessions run $1,100, but people generally need at least 20-30 sessions to see results.
Field has two locations—one near Manhattan’s Bryant Park and the other just north of the city in Westchester’s Bronxville, where I go to give it a whirl. It’s a generic beige building–resembling one where you’d likely find an insurance broker—with a small, lackluster office with sparse, mismatched mid-century furniture and muted hue rugs. Nothing really seems to convey high-tech or luxury.
Check-in is with White, who also serves as the company’s behavioral design specialist (i.e., your personal coach). Much like an initial therapy appointment, White, who gives off a calming and friendly older brother demeanor, wants to know everything about you: your childhood, relationships, career goals, vacation preferences, even your life’s purpose.
Do you know what you want?
Some questions are harder to answer than others. These include: “Do you have a clear understanding of what you want and how you would know if you have it?”
Whereas traditional therapy focuses on past problems or trauma, Field attempts to uncover: When you have a great experience, what is that you notice about yourself internally?
For many of these more challenging personal inquiries, Devon analyzes more than just your answer. He looks for physical and nonverbal cues—like eased shoulders, slowed breath, or a gentle sigh—that are in line with the psychological response of remembering a good time. Your nervous system, says Devon, often offers more insight than words.
The goal is to reach this state more often than not and to only make big decisions from this kind of clarity. This is what Field says it will help you achieve. But for that, it needs to track and manipulate your mind, with the help of a few futuristic gizmos.
After an hour’s talk, I am shuttled to a lab where I am greeted by Dr. Asif and neuroscientist Aza Mantashashvili. I am placed in a reclining medical chair and affixed with an EEG head cap that I’m told will analyze my brain activity. My fingers are outfitted with electrodermal monitors to track stress.
In hushed tones, the team attempts to uncover my mind’s mysteries when my eyes are open (neutral) and closed (resting). They run a few exercises to see how I respond to stress, including showing, on a giant screen in front of me, a disturbing rapidly-flashing film of rotting animals, creepy dolls, and spiders.
From there, I am given a wee bit of control: I am placed into a video game in which my brainwaves control the speed of a racing pod through tunnels. When it stops, it’s because my brain is cluttered. I am constantly told to relax, to calm my brainwaves. My anxiety, it seems, is making this pod’s journey a bumpy ride.
“It’s obvious,” I hear Asif exclaim from the corner of the room. Turns out I have an overactive, rapid firing of brainwaves that supposedly help explain my constant level of stress.
The more they tell me about how my brain controls my personality and behaviors, the more I feel validated (“That is me!”). It’s like listening to a fortune teller but feeling less swindled.
Rewiring the brain
Once the medical team has accumulated enough data, they turn to the tech that can manipulate your brain waves, including TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), which emits targeted magnetic bursts.
“We’re looking at the brain to see where it is now, we know where we want it to go, and then we use those various treatment protocols to drive it there and train it to do that all the time ,” explains White. It’s no one-and-done treatment, though: “We continually take snapshots.”
Neurostimulation has been used to treat depression as well as performance enhancement for military and athletic use. Over 60 studies report “significant improvements in speed and accuracy in a variety of tasks involving perceptual, motor, and executive processing.” TMS has even been studied with the elderly as a noninvasive technique to improve memory.
In my case, magnetic pulses are only administered on my right side (“That’s where you need it,” says Asif), which makes my entire left side twitch uncontrollably. With enough of these zaps, the team promises, my mind will calm itself. I am told this will lead to a Zen-like afternoon and perhaps, if my brain does as it’s told, a deep sleep. But in the moment, it just feels like someone is hitting me on the skull with a toddler-size hammer.
This level of hyperpersonal brain manipulation (coupled with traditional talk therapy) requires in-depth, one-on-one attention. No one treatment could ever accommodate all. A doctor also must tread carefully in adjusting the alpha and beta waves to get the mind to respond in exactly the way the client demands.
White gives an example of a professional golfer he treated and says he had to get out on the field and see how the client played and how his brain changed after various treatments, which included balance-enhancing body movement. That means the patient is out there on the putting green with a monitoring helmet.
“You need to continually monitor it to make sure it’s going in the direction that it’s best for that person and their experiences,” says White.
The golfer’s treatment? Field interrupted parts of his left brain that inhibited his emotional system, then jumpstarted his emotional brain and sensory motor cortex. “As the entire system rebooted and he was able to begin experiencing emotions in new ways, we watched his entire system come back to life in a profound, rewarding, and more optimal way,” explains White.
The Mayo Clinic considers TMS a “safe and well-tolerated” treatment, although there are potential side effects. Common ones include headaches, spasms, and twitching of facial muscles, but the uncommon (and more serious) effects range from seizures to hearing loss.
“The brain is an incredibly personal and unique thing for every individual,” warns White, “so you have to be really careful to know how it responds.”
Riding the biohacking wave
As expected, reproducing this specific type of treatment for the masses is unlikely. Field counts a handful full-time staff members, who are also busy researching best practices. White claims the goal is to ultimately fine-tune the process to a point where it might just be marketable as a customized take-home technology tool. Imagine an AI-driven helmet that could analyze and “fix” a human’s brain. Of course, figuring out how to manipulate brainwaves without medical oversight remains the chief barrier.
In the more immediate future, Field aims to partner with health clinics, athletic centers, or wellness spas that want to offer such a pricey service to upscale clients. The team plans to spend the next two years perfecting the methodology and putting it into a manual form so that it can be licensed across various industries. When affordable enough, White would love to see it serving senior living centers or veteran facilities.
“We’re working toward driving the price down,” says White. “It’s a new technology, so we’re kind of working like the Tesla Motors model.”
There’s also a potential data play, which would undoubtedly need delicate handling, says White. For example, what if your “smart home” didn’t just give you the temperature you wanted, but responded to your brainwaves to keep you balanced?
“Data and information are where the world is going,” stresses White. “I see the entire internet of things plugging into people’s brainwaves.”
While that might seem far-fetched, keep in mind that only several months ago, China introduced the idea of monitoring employees and military personnel’s brainwaves. The world is moving toward personalization–and brainwaves might just be one of the most personal data points conceivable.
“Optimization first begins with just getting the brain to function inside of the narrow band of how it works best,” says White. And then, well, “The sky’s the limit.”