- Biohackers and neurohackers are tech-inspired problem-solvers who want to find DIY ways to “upgrade” their biology and cognitive abilities.
- Biohacks run the gamut from the socially acceptable (exercise, coffee) to the extreme (hyperbaric chambers, microchips embedded under the skin).
- The concept of biohacking can make us explore what we value more in humanity, meaning or performance?
- Proponents of human enhancement should consider the implications for health, ethics, and society as a whole.
You start feeling tired during the day, so you order a wearable device that tracks your sleep. The data indicates that you’re not spending long enough in your REM cycle, so you begin researching natural sleep aids. You discover an online community of amateur biologists who not only recommend avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, but also advocate intermittent fasting to lose weight, butter in your coffee to boost energy (Bulletproof coffee), omega-3 fatty acid supplements to improve your cognitive functioning, and a morning concoction of water, lemon, and Himalayan salt, aka “salt juice,” to maintain cardiovascular health.
Members of this do-it-yourself (DIY) community are passionate about finding ways to overcome what they perceive as the frustrating limitations of their minds and bodies. Most of them are in good health, but they want to be in superior health. Some of them want to live forever–or at least 180 years. Some of them want to find shortcuts to mastering depression or anxiety. They usually aren’t MDs, but they are problem-solvers who see biology as a sort of software engineering puzzle they can crack through creative thinking. They are biohackers.
Biohackers are all about the upgrade. Upgrade your mind to focus better at work. Upgrade your cells to fight aging. Upgrade your breathing to withstand extreme cold so you can reduce inflammation and lower your risk of heart disease. Biohackers don’t want to wait for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve new drugs for certain purposes. They do their own research and self-experimentation (which is why biohackers are sometimes called “garage biologists” or “DIY biologists”). They’re people who feel inspired to use modern technology to wrestle with the boundaries of our tired old bodies, sometimes by any means necessary.
What Is Biohacking?
Biohacking can be difficult to define because when you really start the ball rolling, any attempt at self-improvement might be considered a biohack. This writer, for example, gives Thriveworks readers all kinds of (excellent!) advice on how to feel rich with less money, confront racial biases,take control of your circadian rhythms, etc. And most of us try to do the basic, evidence-based behaviors that keep us healthy. We know that we should eat our fruits and vegetables, for example. We should exercise, aim for eight hours of sleep a night, and breathe in fresh air if we want to achieve well-being.
But the biohacker mindset takes a bolder approach to personal health. First, a biohacker typically wants hard data. They want a “quantified self.” You know–all the numbers that a smartwatch or a smart ring can tell you in real-time. Once biohackers start taking and evaluating these measurements, they can readily see where their performance has been subpar. And then they’re highly motivated to find ways to upgrade their operating systems.
There’s a wide range of biohacking techniques, not all of them from this millennium. For instance, humans have been meditating for spiritual ends since 5,000 BCE. But a biohacker might practice Buddhist meditation for different purposes, for heart rate variability (HRV) training, for example, or to be more creative. They’re looking for enlightenment of another kind. They might claim that their practice is spiritual as well, but it seems to be spirituality rooted in their own body’s processes and overall performance.
Consider an average woman who might resemble this writer. In her lifetime she has used birth control, done strength-training, applied anti-aging skin creams, tracked her menstrual cycle, dieted, done HIIT workout videos, taken a walk in nature to elevate her mood, banished artificial light from the bedroom at night, journaled, worn contact lenses, read extensively about J.Lo’s daily routine, used sunscreen, made a concerted effort to eat more legumes, splashed cold water on her face to ease anxiety, taken SSRIs, learned French. And she has also spent hours in therapy coming to peace with her own mind and the errors of her youth. Is she a biohacker? It’s a bit of a gray area.
What Is Neurohacking?
Neurohacking–also called cognitive enhancement (CE) or neuroenhancement–is a subtype of biohacking that focuses on upgrading one’s thinking skills. Again, this isn’t just a 21st-century concept. Humans throughout history have tried to improve their memory, their focus, their creativity, their motivation, and their behaviors. And the science of today backs up the idea that we can modify our mental capacity. According to research on neuroplasticity, the brain is more software than hardware. That is, it’s perfectly capable of forming new neural pathways and making fresh connections based on various inputs.
Neurohackers want to decipher this code and find ways to be smarter, more focused, less depressed, and so much more. They also want to avoid the cognitive decline that comes with age. How do they do it? According to a comprehensive paper on the subject, these interventions can be clustered by type of biohacking strategy: biochemical, physical, and behavioral enhancement. Here are some popular biohacks:
- Nootropics. Nootropics, also called “smart drugs,” are supplements marketed to improve cognitive performance.
- Nutritional neuroscience. This approach includes eating habits as well as dietary supplements. Biohackers might use caffeine or glucose to increase alertness, for example. They may use traditional herbal remedies like green tea’s L-theanine compound. And of course there’s “raw water.”
- Mnemonic techniques. Neurohackers might try to enhance their learning and memorization skills with strategies like spaced repetition.
- Video games. Some digital games and computer programs are marketed to improve specific cognitive skills.
- Meditation. Neurohackers might meditate to enhance their emotional regulation and executive functioning.
- Sleep. Sleep is essential for cognitive health.
- Exercise. Exercise regimes can aid attention and focus.
- Cultural activities. Learning an instrument or a second language can boost creativity.
- Fasting. Many biohackers employ caloric deprivation for weight loss, improved concentration, and even longer life spans. They may also try dopamine fasting.
By the way, the placebo effect has been shown to play a significant role in neurohacking successes. When you do things that you believe will help you focus, you’re probably better able to focus.
“Breathing exercises, quiet reflection, singing, chanting, mantras, prayer, psychedelic ceremonies–these are some of the oldest forms of biohacking. They’re technologies for reaching altered states. Gratitude is an altered state. Forgiveness is an altered state. Flow (an athlete might call it “being in the zone”), a sense of oneness with the people around you, radical creativity–all are altered states, and we humans have been pursuing them for thousands of years. In these altered states, tremendous feats of human performance are possible.”
Dave Asprey, founder of Bulletproof and “Father of Biohacking”
Methods of Extreme Biohackers
What this article refers to as extreme biohacking may just be part of a normal lifestyle in 20 years, like using sunscreen or joining a gym. But for now, the following behaviors aren’t widely socially accepted, and for good reason. Most of them don’t have the peer-reviewed research and scientific evidence to back them up. Here are some examples of the extreme lengths to which some biohackers go in order to achieve their self-improvement goals. And please keep in mind that Thriveworks does not endorse any of these risky “hacks”!
- Genetic modifications. A biohacker named Josiah Zayner tried to modify his own genome with an injection of CRISPR technology. (He actually regrets it now.)
- Deep brain stimulation. Yes, DIY neurohacking is as dangerous as it sounds. Some people use electrical stimulation methods like transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) to “enhance” their cognition.
- Implants. A subset of neurohackers called grinders embed magnets, chips, and even computers on their bodies to attain cyborg capabilities.
- Novel psychoactive substances (NPS). Another subset of neurohackers called psychonauts might microdose themselves with psychedelic mushrooms, MDMA, or LSD to improve their moods.
- Real-time biofeedback. With the “mental gym” of biofeedback/neurofeedback, neurohackers might seek to “rewire” their brains while hooked up to EEG or fMRI machines.
- Stem cells. A neurohacker might harvest and inject their own stem cells to slow their aging process.
- Cryotherapy. Cryotherapy is the practice of using icy cold water to prevent brain injury, improve circulation, and much more. Famous practitioners include Wim Hof the “Iceman” as well as g-tummo Buddhist monks.
- Infrared light therapy. Some neurohackers use near-infrared saunas to reduce stress from electromagnetic emissions.
- Virtual float tanks. These sensory deprivation tanks supposedly induce an altered state of consciousness.
- Hyperbaric chambers. A neurohacker might use this chamber to enhance cognition by depriving themselves of oxygen.
- Medical-grade stimulants. Some neurohackers use elective psychopharmacology in order to achieve their cognitive goals. For instance, they might abuse an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug like Adderall in an attempt to focus better. This kind of neuromodulation is of course highly risky, but more on that later.
- Blood transfusions. Wealthy neurohackers might transfuse their bloodstreams with the blood of someone younger.
These transhumanist attempts can start to seem very “wicked queen.” We’ve all seen the Disney movies and the superhero movies about villains who want to become more powerful. Biohacker methods can also escalate into some ethically ambiguous territory.
Pros and Cons of the Human Enhancement Movement
Biohacking and its cousin neurohacking are both interesting, for sure. It would be a shame to dismiss some of these strategies simply because they’re new and humans tend to be neophobic. After all, homo sapiens have made huge strategic shifts in the past, as when we started cooking our meat or wearing sneakers or using cell phones. Human enhancement in general seems unstoppable.
The biohacking movement also has the potential to democratize science and encourage more “citizen scientists.” It can feel good to take control over your own health for free without waiting for big pharma to sell you something. Finally, biohacking, especially the data-driven strategies, can give people some fascinating insights into who they are.
All that being said, there’s a lot to fret about as well. Let’s break down the cons of biohacking into three general categories: medical, ethical, and social issues.
Medical Implications of Biohacking
The human brain is incredibly complicated, plastic, and interconnected. It’s conceivable that one neural enhancement might cause a neural deficit elsewhere. Neuroscientists don’t really believe there’s such a thing as “noninvasive” cognitive enhancement. There’s just still so much we don’t know about brain function and the long-term effects of these interventions.
And how an enhancement works really depends on the person it’s working on, and their baseline cognitive skills. Neurohackers sometimes co-opt biotechnology that’s been developed to treat serious health problems, like neurodegenerative diseases. Potent psychopharmaceuticals meant for someone with Alzheimer’s or even ADHD could cause long-term side effects in healthy individuals.
Speaking of health problems, DIY genetic modification is a terrible idea. What if you accidentally cause a mutation that increases your risk of a mental health disorder, for example? Or cancer? If you’re interested in biohacking, explore away, but don’t take medical advice from people on the internet, especially not from those live-streaming genetic modifications from their garage.
Ethical Implications of Biohacking
There’s been some research into what makes people object to biohacking. For example, we tend to perceive more ethical issues if someone is enhancing themselves passively rather than actively. That is, we cry foul if someone is just popping smart pills rather than investing time and energy into their personal goals. We also tend to approve more of neurohackers who start from a lower baseline level of performance, as when someone is sick. If someone is already high-functioning and then they boost their achievement even more with cognitive enhancements, it just doesn’t seem ethical.
We can learn a lot about our own moral values by examining the social acceptance–or lack thereof–around biohacking. We prefer “soft enhancers” like energy drinks to “hard enhancers” like hard drugs or microchips. And we don’t want people enhancing themselves so much that they lose their identities or authenticity. There’s also a strong sense, at least in this writer, that happiness and meaning aren’t achieved through key performance indicators, but through other means, like community, and intangibles that biohacking and biotechnology can’t exactly measure.
Societal Implications of Biohacking
Which brings us to society. The whole concept of biohacking was purportedly invented by tech bros in Silicon Valley who wanted to be more productive at work. Is the whole point of biohacking to benefit the business world? Aren’t we trying to fight burnout? And some of these interventions exact a huge cost in both time and money. What if all that effort went toward improving society rather than just one’s self, or as one Thriveworks writer calls it, selfless help versus self help?
There’s also the question of access. What if only the privileged few are able to ramp up their cognitive enhancements and leave the rest of us behind, working longer hours with fewer skills? Wouldn’t that be unfair? And wouldn’t meritocratic values be undermined by all these hard-enhanced superhumans? You probably don’t need to answer these questions before you read a book about improving your memory, but just be aware of the slippery slope.
Taking the Buzzwords out of Feeling Better
Biohacking can engender both excitement and anxiety. It’s intriguing to think there are technical resources that can improve our health and well-being, but it also inspires a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out) and moral inquiry. You might ask yourself, “Do I want to be better or do I want to feel better?” One output is based on performance and the other is based on personal growth.
Here are some evidence-based biohacks: Reduce the stress in your life. Find meaningful connection with others. Talk to a licensed therapist about your motivation or mood issues instead of buying more expensive supplements. And don’t let your curiosity overtake your authentic self. You are more than your numbers can measure, and no one, not even an immortal tech bro, can quantify your potential.