The Art of Brain-Hacking

/ by Noah Charney

Okay, so we may need to work on the name. “Brain-hacking” sounds like it involves an axe, rather than digital wearables, and if a stranger walked up to you on a lonely, twilit street and offered to “hack your brain,” you would probably flee in abject terror. But it’s a thing, and a new one, that seems to be the future. A step beyond the “quantified self” to what we might call “qualifying the self.”


The “quantified self” movement is already old news, but its popularity is growing. It started with things like analog pedometers, and worked its way up to iWatches, Fitbits and LEAFs and all manner of digital gadgetry that monitors the mind and body for us, charts the results, and then analyzes how we might improve.


The “quantified self” began around 2002, with health-conscious people who began to track their bodily functions (things like heartrate, blood sugar, sleep patterns, kilometers walked, and more) using wearable pieces of technology. The forerunner to this was the pedometer, a simple, analog gadget worn on your belt that ticked one step ahead every time you took a step. This mechanism is surprisingly old—Leonardo da Vinci conceived of one for military use, and a historical example survives from southern Germany, made in 1590. Abraham-Louis Perrelet produced one in Switzerland in 1780, using the same mechanism he had devised for the first self-winding watch. Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing the first pedometer into the United States, purchased in France. That’s right: early endorsers of the “quantified self” movement include Leonardo and Th. J.


Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

The mainstream use of mechanical pedometers began in the 1970s (with a mass-produced version made in Japan in 1965), with the computerized versions in the 2000s. But it wasn’t only pedometers. There were folks with medical reasons to keep track of their functions: diabetics, for instance, need to know their blood sugar levels at regular intervals, and those wishing to get pregnant might keep track of the fertile windows in their menstrual cycles. The “quantified self” really took off, became a thing, when digital, wearable gadgetry combined with fitness and wellness trends, and brought quantifying one’s workouts to the masses.


But this movement is passive, absorbing information from what we already do and showing it to us, the idea being that it will inspire us to change. But it doesn’t actually try to change us. Data is meant to goad us into proactivity. We are now at a new phase, in which you choose how you would prefer to feel and act, and allow digital technology to help you along.




Does the idea of pressing a button on an app to choose your preferred state of mind (sleepy-time, concentration, meditation, study session) sound creepy, or empowering? When I first heard of it, it seemed very sci-fi, out of some cyber-human future of bionic limbs and Matrix-like uploads of knowledge and skills by USB plug into our bodies. But then I thought about it more, and decided that it wasn’t all that bizarre: it is not so different from what we already do, and it is the entirely logical next step forward from the already-mainstream “quantified self” movement.


While it sounds very Bladerunner, but we humans have been doing things to try to alter how our minds behave for centuries. I’m not speaking only of “mind-altering substances” in the Hunter S. Thompson sense, but also far simpler—pharmaceuticals like sleep aids, headache tablets and the like. It’s less of a shock to the system to think of pressing a button on your smartphone to active a digital impulse if you can’t fall asleep, when you consider that this action could replace popping a pill.


Which brings me to brain-hacking. There are currently several wearables on the market, some very new, that appear to do just this, and I think that we are on standing the tip of a new iceberg soon to surface. Consider four. There’s Thync, which stimulates nerves on the head and neck, to trigger the brain’s adrenaline system to either energize or calm you down. It looks a bit weird, with a white triangle stuck onto your temple, but it seems to work and is, by far, the best-known gadget within this movement. Sleep Shepherd combines a brain wave sensor and binaural beats to help you sleep better and get to sleep faster, but you wouldn’t want to be seen in public with it (it looks like a neoprene knee brace that you strap to your head). iMRS 2000 uses pulsed electromagnetic frequencies to alter your mood, and it seems to work (in interviews conducted for this article it got thumbs-up from several users), but it is expensive ($990 as of writing) and elaborate, with various components and a digital control board, meaning you need space (and privacy) to use it (without looking weird). The fourth I’ll mention is the one that got me interested in the subject, ELF emmit (full disclosure: I was employed to do some general consulting and copy-writing by the firm, but I am not a shareholder). This works on the same principle as iMRS 2000, but it is more subtle to wear (it is a crescent headband that rests on the back of your head, and is light and largely invisible, especially if you have longer hair, like I do). It also uses electromagnetic pulses to “suggest” to your brain that it function in your preferred state of mind. It is powered and controlled by your smartphone, through the headphone jack, and has five pre-loaded modes: Concentrate, Meditate, Anti-Stress, Sleep and Deep Learning, each linked to a curated program of electromagnetic pulses at specific frequencies.


This is the only product that I was able to try before writing this article, and it has a number of pluses. First, it is subtle, not much more obvious than a Bluetooth earpiece, which makes it distinctive—wear the other devices in this category in public, and you may look like an escapee from a mental institution who is an enthusiast of “hacking brains” in the less constructive sense. The technology it uses, pulsed electromagnetism, is ancient (Galen wrote about it around 200 BC in De Simplicium Medicamentorum Temperamentis Ac Facultatibus, describing the “purgative powers” of magnets; Persian physician Ali Abbas wrote of using magnets to treat “gout” and “spasms” back in 1000 AD, and Paracelsus, the 16th century Swiss physician, wrote that he could cure “hernias, gout and jaundice” by using magnets), and there are reams of scientific papers attesting to the ability of electromagnetic pulse therapy to speed the healing of bone fractures, treat depression and anxiety, and much more. This has been FDA-approved for decades at higher levels of intensity, which must be doctor-supervised. What’s new is that this sort of technology is being implemented, at lower intensity levels that are still purportedly effective in wearables, for home use.


ELF emmit is comfortable and easy to use, and I was able to sleep on it without a problem—even my normal tossing and turning did not unplug it from the smartphone, which I thought might be an issue. It did take several days to start working, which I actually found reassuring. Pressing a button once and magically altering brain behavior sounds suspicious and more invasive, but this product has been tested thoroughly and is both harmless and non-invasive. But your brain does need time to get used to the external stimulus, which you cannot feel and which is at extremely low frequencies (that’s where the acronym of the slightly awkward name, ELF emmit, comes from). It’s akin to falling asleep while on a train, lulled by the “chukachuka” of the wheels along the tracks, or gong therapy (so I’m told, I’ve not partaken)—the brain naturally wants to sync with external rhythms. I needed a good five days of intermittent use before I started to notice anything happening, and I’m told this is normal (I actually needed four—the first day I had the volume on my iPhone turned too low, and I was informed that the volume must be maxed out in order for the pulses to be strong enough to work). In their internal tests, most users needed 5-7 days (one reviewer found it worked in three). It’s a bit like hypnotherapy—resistance to it will restrict its efficacy, so skeptics may remain skeptical, if they don’t give it an honest chance (or if the volume is too low). But from the moment I began to feel it working, it worked in all modes (though I never tried Meditate, as it’s not really my thing) immediately, so it’s as if there’s a threshold to cross, an initial brain training period, after which you and your ELF emmit become buddies and work together smoothly.


I can see these sorts of wearables as the future, the logical next step beyond the “quantified self.” I spoke to Joey Heller from Agency 2.0, a highly-successful crowd-funding agency which ran the ELF emmit Indiegogo campaign (which ends 11 September 2016), about this phenomenon, since so many of these new wearables get their start on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. “Crowdfunding platforms have become a great hub for innovation in alternative methods of self-improvement tech or, as Indiegogo categorizes ‘habit-changing wearables,’” he said. “Customers looking for products like ELF emmit know they can't find them at big box retail stores or ecommerce sites like Amazon, so they come to crowdfunding sites to learn more about a product, its creators/innovators, and the community that has backed the project with contributions towards Indiegogo or Kickstarter. It's also a space for backers to socialize and share their stories on why these kinds of products are exactly what they're looking for, and have been unable to find anywhere else. Innovation and community are the real driving forces behind crowdfunding, and the health sector is just getting started.”


Well, it looks like the health sector has a new category, as these “habit-changing wearables” increase in popularity, innovation and experience. The ELF emmit folks tell me that researchers affiliated with various institutions, including Yale and Cambridge, have requested ELF emmits to work with, with an eye toward developing more modes of use beyond general wellness, to possibly treat more serious conditions. Who would have thought that “brain-hacking” could have such a positive connotation? The future, strewn with hacked brains, looks bright, indeed.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.