You may already be addicted to your gadgets, but there’s a new gadget that actually promises to get you high. Silicon Valley has been dabbling in seratonin and dopamine for a while - apps (especially games) with a user experience engineered the right way can offer you a small hit of pleasure by releasing these brain chemicals - but it’s something new to directly stimulate the brain.
Sold as “the first wearable technology that actively changes the way you feel,” Thync may be the first of a new class of drug: mood-altering electronic devices. The Los Gatos, California company (which also has an office in Boston) has attracted serious funding: a 2014 press release revealed $13 million raised so far. Given the size of the global market for mind-altering substances, perhaps that should be no surprise.
The current product, the “Thync Kit” consists of three components: a module, worn on the forehead (and pictured above), strips placed on the back of your neck, and an app that controls these wearables. There’s a sleeker-looking, one-piece headset advertised on their website for Summer 2017.
Thync is presented in airy, post-Apple branding that wraps it in an aesthetic that evokes the iPhone as much as meditation or yoga. Their website feels more “lifestyle enhancement” and “luxury wellness” than either “medical device” or outright “stoner” - a balance which I’m sure is intentional.
That said, there are a few not-so-subtle nods to cannabis culture, indicating Thync sees itself as fitting into that spectrum of lifestyle use. That also seems to hint that using the device has a mildly psychoactive effect (users have described it this way). The frequency patterns Thync users can send to the device are called “Vibes” and the picture of the app in use just happens to depict it at four minutes and twenty seconds.
The billion-dollar question, of course, is “does it actually work?” There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence that it does. PBS reporter Cristina Quinn, in a segment on WGBH Boston, went to the Thync headquarters and tried it herself. In the video (below), her obvious skepticism and questions about the placebo effect dissolve into an evidently relaxed, euphoric mental state in minutes. She giggles, finds it difficult to think of stressful things, and has trouble following Thync’s “Chief of Vibes” Sumon Pal as he explains some of the technical workings of the device. Feeling unable to go back to the newsroom in her current state, she requests a session of “energy vibes” to return her to something more befitting the workplace.
Quinn’s is not the only firsthand testament to Thync’s efficacy. But it’s also countered by plenty of online reviews saying the effect is weak, and complaints about the device itself being uncomfortable and difficult to configure (it’s probably in response to this that the next generation of Thync devices looks like it will be very different).
How does Thync achieve its effects? According to their website, Thync has a “proprietary neurosignaling technology” that manipulates your nervous system via three neural pathways. The sympathetic nervous system, associated with “fight or flight” responses and the parasympathetic system, associated with a relaxation of these instincts, are kept in balance by the brain. Thync, it appears, works by affecting the balance of these systems.
This is futuristic stuff, but Thync isn’t without precedent. Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) has been around for 100 years, and Thync’s proprietary tech is an iteration of tDCS. Though it has a long history, most research into tDCS is fairly recent, and it seems safe to stay it’s still in an early stage of development. So far, the health claims studies best back up are that tDCS has potential for treating depression.
There’s an ancestor to Thync that I’m sure they wouldn’t want to remind you of: shock treatment. Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, developed in the 1930s and in recent decades viewed with increasing skepticism and controversy, remains a tool of last resort for those suffering from severe psychiatric disorders. The risks are significant: ECT’s side-effects include memory loss and brain damage.
Thync is carefully calibrated to be risk-free, or that’s what their website implies. If ECT is the thorazine of electronic drugs, Thync would be the Prozac, or maybe the Xanax. Could it be that Thync is playing it too safe, tamping down the power and also keeping the effects too mild to catch on as a consumer device? What about the home-brewed version of a technology like Thync, for those who want something more potent or immediate?
These questions and others make Thync just one of the more visible markers on a new map of mind and mood-altering technologies.
Electrified: Adventures in transcranial direct-current stimulation by Elif Batuman in The New Yorker, April 2015