The scene is straight out of Zoolander. The warehouse is bare apart from some brightly-coloured IKEA furniture. The walls are lined with oversized whiteboards and refrigerators stocked with kombucha. In one corner, a group of beta testers sit on pod-shaped seats, sporting what appear to be triangle-shaped plastic bandages above their temples. Flocking around them is a clutch of attractive marketing specialists, identifiable by their workout suits featuring the company’s logo. “How do you feel?” they ask from time to time.
We’re all here at Runway Incubator – the epicentre of the San Francisco start-up scene – to test one of the latest mind-altering wearable device: a product called Thync.
It is one of several capitalising on a growing consensus that electrical stimulation can alter brain function to mitigate problems as diverse asand . Devices on the market range from those billed as clinical therapies, like Fisher Wallace, to those with a self-hacking ethos, like Foc.us. Thync has a different consumer in mind – it’s selling itself as the brain wearable for the rest of us.
The company recently announced that it has sold thousands of its devices in the year since they launched. In February, the company introduced its newest setting, “Good Night”, which it claims improves sleep quality faster than melatonin or meditation. But is Thync just riding, or is there something to it? I am here to find out.
Placebo, the enemy
I had signed up to be one of its first users long before Thync hit the market in June. A month after launch, I received a black box in the mail stamped with Thync’s forward-slash logo. The device’s sleek, minimalist design is very of the moment. I attached the rounded triangular plastic badge to my temple using adhesive. It connects to a wire that terminates in two sticky strips of electrodes. These attach to areas where nerves are close to the skin – one above the right eyebrow, the other behind the ear or on the back of the neck.
Unlike its competitors, which use cranial electrotherapy or transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), Thync doesn’t directly target the brain. Instead, the triangular module applies pulsed electrical currents to the electrodes, targeting nerves on the face and neck that then modulate some of the. By ramping these hormones up or down, Thync claims to engender two effects – or “vibes”, in Thync parlance – calm or energy.
Its makers insist stimulating easily accessible nerves is preferable to direct brain stimulation. Thync’s Chief of Vibes Sumon Pal says this is because “the skull, and other layers between the head and cortex are greatly filtering out the signal”, making direct brain stimulation less specific.
That’s according to. The science behind this consumer product is more robust than most. CEO Isy Goldwasser says the company has devoted three years to ensuring Thync’s effects were stronger than placebo, and he calls placebo “the enemy”.
Roi Cohen Kadosh, who studies tDCS at the University of Oxford, says Thync’s empirical studies are “a very positive point for their side”, even though he believes that uncertainties about long-term safety mean the technology isn’t ready to be commercialised.
Some of the sleek effect is lost once you put it on – I ended up looking as if I had tried to don an eye patch and missed. Things didn’t improve when I turned it on. A bluetooth-connected smartphone app allowed me to adjust the intensity of the current to one of 13 settings with names like “unwind” and “bliss” or “work” and “awake”. Not listed was the painful burning sensation I couldn’t dial away. I tried a few more times to get the results Thync promised, and eventually I gave up.
It was almost half a year later that I received an invitation to attend a Thync social event at the company’s offices at Runway Incubator. By now there had been a spate of glowing reviews. I wanted to know what I was missing.
When I voiced concern about my previous experience to one of the marketing representatives, she adjusted my triangle and set it to “surge”, one of their most extreme energy vibes. I waited for the burn, but it didn’t come. Instead I felt a pulsing buzz that gradually intensified throughout the session. Ten minutes later – the default time setting for surge – I detached the strip and went off to mingle.
I am not an introvert, but I am also not a small talk enthusiast. Yet, from then on, I was hyper, extroverted, confident and mentally on point. Seems I was vibing.
I wasn’t alone. The crowd at the Thync social were eager to share their experiences. Some explained that Thync was their replacement for caffeine. Others wanted the soothing effects of a beer at times when a cold one would be socially unacceptable. Descriptions included concentration booster, hangover cure and workout intensifier – one described Thync as a digital drug.
Feel the burn
Still dazed from the surge experience, I headed home. My mind raced and I couldn’t wait to do it again.
The next day, I positioned the module the way I had been shown, and tapped start. I felt a familiar feeling, but not the pulsing buzz. Instead, the uncomfortable burning sensation was back. I tried dialling down the intensity and attaching new strips, but the pain persisted.
The support button at the bottom of the app screen connected me to Maya*, who coached me by video chat through the positioning process: “up a little. No, down. There.” But the burning sensation prevailed. Was my module a lemon? In an impressive show of customer support, Maya suggested I come to Thync’s headquarters, in a suburb called Los Gatos, where she could diagnose the problem in person. Thync headquarters bore little resemblance to the techie warehouse cliché of the night before. I walked into a tasteful but nondescript office space.
Maya got right down to business. She placed the module on my head and hit the start button. Once more I felt a wave of pain. Maya was confused: I “deviated from the norm”. She offered that perhaps my skin was too sensitive for Thync.
That was when her colleague approached us from across the room to add his speculation. “The vibes depend on your current environment,” he said, meaning that my previous strong energy boost might have been a by-product of the excited interactions in my vicinity. If that isn’t a textbook description of, I don’t know what is. Cutting the conversation short, Maya rushed me off with a replacement module.
My new module’s pulse is painless, but I haven’t been able to duplicate that fantastical, punch-drunk state. The best I can do is a strong espresso feeling, which isn’t nothing, but it’s no game changer.
The revolution will be mild
These mind-altering wearables are definitely making their way into the mainstream. Variousof last year’s hottest tech such products alongside the Apple Watch and Oculus Rift; even Vanity Fair showcased one in its selection of .
But I’m pretty confident that we aren’t facing a future surrounded by colleagues sporting white forehead triangles. Thync’s effects are just not big enough to produce the cultural change of its creators’ dreams. It will not make you smarter, sharper or happier. What it might do is give you a boost here, a break there. It can be one person’s noise cancelling headphones, and another’s scotch on the rocks. For me, it is coffee without the jitters.
What of all those people insisting on the powers of Thync? It’s probably too early to gauge how effective it is for your average neurostimulation dabbler. But if Thync can replicate its findings, we just might catch a glimpse of the world beyond the neuro-hype bubble.
*Name has been changed
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