Body Hacking? There’s an App for That

The Personal Mobile Tech Providing Digital Drug Effects


The popularisation of mobile phones initially triggered widespread fears about the effect of sustained exposure to electromagnetic radiation. The benefits of, and significant improvements to the technology have since subdued this narrative, although concerns over aspects like the sleep disruption caused by blue-light displays remain prominent.

But can smartphone and wearable technology offer any positive adjustments to our physiology?

The human body can be “hacked” in a number of ways to elicit helpful results. The mammalian diving response, for instance, enables an individual to significantly and rapidly lower their heart rate with just a splash of cold water — an evolutionary survival mechanism employed as a convenient tool for those suffering from conditions like anxiety.

Some device developers are now considering the activation of such reflexes as part of their offerings, aiming to use personal technology to bring about real-world benefits for consumers.

Thync‘s wearable devices aim to “use the nervous system to change medicine”, with claims that its neck-worn “pod” is capable of delivering calming neurostimulation using electrodes. Co-founder Isy Goldwasse describes the products as “triggering the body’s own natural mechanisms to relax”, stating this as an improvement on taking pharmaceuticals for the same result.

The doppel wristband relies on an instinctive human response to rhythm, and is designed to deliver either restfulness or focus to its wearer by producing a heartbeat-like vibration. This intends to evoke a sense of calm at its lowest setting, and to encourage concentration at higher rates. BioSelf’s Sensate uses similar biometric feedback — in this case pairing vibrations with sound — to influence the vagus nerve, and alleges to offer the benefits of long-term meditation in a 10-minute period.

The recent trend for mindfulness and reflection has driven a plethora of these products, but some firms are also targeting medical conditions outside the emotional wellbeing sphere. TouchPoint devices, for example, are sold in sets of two to be worn on opposite sides of the body, enabling delivery of alternating vibrations. The company reports that the unique mechanism can produce “quantifiable brain changes after just seconds of use”, helping users to cope with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and Parkinson’s disease, as well as stress, insomnia and sleep problems.

Products can aid with hobbies, too, with the likes of the Halo Neuroscience foam-spiked headphones employing cranial electrical stimulation to encourage “stronger” brain–muscle connections when learning motor skills. They’re intended for use in sports or activities like playing an instrument to enable “better results, faster”.

These devices all offer chemical-free support at home and, with so many apparent uses and benefits, it seems logical that embedded wearables might be the next step in improving our lives through technology. Gadi Amit, president of the NewDealDesign studio, which is responsible for the Project Underskin initiative, hypothesised such user interfaces as long ago as 2015. Such biohacking technologies haven’t yet become commonplace, but Mr Amit described personal electronics as being at “the beginning of an interesting story”. The industry for smart devices is slowly but surely making for smarter human physiology.

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