How Commercial "Brain Hacking" Devices Push the Limits of Medical Science

Computer-brain interface technology is progressing faster than medical research can reliably understand how it affects human health over the longterm. Still, the technology is really cool.

Nichol Bradford:  With transformative technology and at the transformative technology lab we’re tracking ten major areas of trans tech. And those ten areas include things like neurofeedback and biofeedback, neurostim and biostim. Those are the ones that I think people would think of the most. A good example of that would be the Muse headset by Interaxon that measures your EEG so it measures your brainwaves. Another thing that’s coming out is neurostim. A good example of that would be a company called Halo Neuroscience and so it’s a slight stimulation to the brain that in their trials with elite athletes they’re showing people having big surges in ability and so that’s kind of interesting. There’s another product called Think that sits on the forehead right here and it stimulates the peripheral nerves and could replace a cup of coffee. So it sort of stimulates you and wakes you up. So there’s a lot of focus on things that are taking feedback from the body and then stimulating the body.

And so it could be the body or the brain. One of the things that is coming is a lot of vagus nerve stimulation and on the medical side there’s research that’s recently come out where people are really taking that more seriously. In addition some of the things that I think are really cool is I’m really intrigued by emotion recognition software. Whether that’s through cameras that are watching facial expressions or through – or another example would be there’s a company called Beyond Verbal that just off of audio files can pick up human emotion. And you might think well sort of what’s the use of that. I know how I feel. But it’s actually if you think about it when everything in your house is smart you’re really going to want it to know if you’re upset or not. So I have a friend, an older friend that I bought an Amazon Echo for and she whispers around the Echo like it’s a real person. This is someone who’s in their seventies. And so for people who are growing up in smart houses which a lot of children today they won’t even know a time where there isn’t a certain level of intelligence that’s baked into their environment we’re going to want all these things to know how we feel. I think that emotion recognition is really interesting. It’s the thing that’s captured my imagination right now.

There’s a lot of interest right now in neurostim and a lot of that is based on a series of studies that were done by DARPA where they were using slight electrical stimulation and saw an increase in task acquisition for people in various roles in the military. The one that’s the most well-known is for the increase or the acceleration for sharpshooters from novice to expert with the application of a slight electrical stimulation while they were learning. There’s a lot of people who are really interested in that. There’s actually a really large do-it-yourself community around the world where people are doing citizen independent science really and do-it-yourself science and using various levels of electrical currency on their own brains and then sharing it in forums and communicating about it. People have been trying electrical stimulation with physical task acquisition. Also language task acquisition. I t’s one of those things that there’s products that are being based on it. There’s a whole category of things called transcranial direct stimulation. And so there’s a lot of products out there on that. Some of the brand names you might find would be Focus is one. Halo Neuroscience is another. The Think product is another. And so it’s starting to have commercial products for it.

There also was a as you can imagine there’s a lot of the medical community is a little concerned about it. It’s a good example of where people, individuals are really sort of pushing ahead of where the medical community is on, you know, what’s a good idea for what levels of stimulation you should have, how often and where. What part of the brain that you try to stimulate through the surface. And so it’s really, it’s an interesting space and people are pushing into it.

Human wellbeing exists between two planes of physical and mental health. While our physical health has gone digital — through apps and devices like Fitbit that quantify health metrics — human mental health has remained more analogue. To address our mental health, we still prefer the professional advice of doctors or ancient meditative practices like yoga.


The inability of technology to penetrate our state of consciousness, however, is quickly drawing to a close. Willow Group, a company that aims to leverage technology to bring people peace of mind, is led by CEO Nichol Bradford. A number of new medical devices are pushing into a space that some medical professionals, says Bradford, are uncomfortable with.

Nonetheless, a number of studies indicate that computer-brain interface devices may help people be more alert, learn faster, and understand their own emotions more accurately. Bradford refers to one instance in which the military's experimental research wing, DARPA, found that transcranial direct current stimulation improved the rate at which soldiers were able to learn certain skills.

And where the government is experimenting, a number of private companies have emerged around similar technologies. Muse, a "brain sensing" headband, asks users to wear it while meditating. The device gives realtime feedback about brain activity so people become more aware of their own awareness, and therefore more able to improve their ability to meditate.

Another device is the Halo headset from Halo Neuroscience, which claims to be the computer-brain interface of elite athletes. The company claims it can prime the brain for training through a series of electric pulses, resulting in more effective workouts. Among Halo's customers is the US Ski Team, according to the company's website.

Technology tends to progress faster than our ability to measure its results, at least according to medical science which relies on longterm studies. And the allure of technological progress often outpaces our caution regarding its health consequences — recall questions of whether cellphone signals might potentially harm the brain. Still, new technologies have transformed our lives dramatically in the last 50 years, and the rate of progress is speeding up rather than slowing down.

Nichol Bradford is the author of The Sisterhood.

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