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The Fight to Fix Your Brain

New companies are creating technology to calm us, help us sleep better, and create a general sense of wellness. And users are saying the devices work. Is it a placebo effect or the real feel?

(Thync/Molly McHugh/Ringer illustration)
(Thync/Molly McHugh/Ringer illustration)

For me, sleep problems came later. I started tossing and turning around 26 years old. Regardless of how easily I fall into rest when I hit the pillow, 2 a.m. comes around to ruin it, and with it the fidgeting and the late-night Instagram binges and the staring at the ceiling. Around 3 a.m., the anxiety sets in. “I will get no sleep tonight, and tomorrow will be a waking hellscape of exhaustion,” is my internal mantra. Each glance at the clock confirms: I am still not asleep. At some point, my weary body rests for what feels like 20 minutes, and then, suddenly, the alarm goes off. It’s physically painful to rise every morning.

And so I take drugs. I travel often to see friends and family, and when I go, I leave a trail of empty sleeping pill packets — and when times are especially desperate, 5-Hour Energy bottles. My uppers and downers are admittedly tamer than those of other sleep sufferers, but I’ve grown depressingly dependent on their effects to fix my broken system. Such solutions are obviously not perfect; addiction to sleeping pills and Vitamin B to combat them can be perilous. My foggy brain and quickened pulse in the morning surely can’t be a good sign.

So when Thync offered me one of its units at CES this year, I did not hesitate.

Over the past decade, consumers have become comfortable wearing their tech. Between quantified self wearables like Fitbit and connected fashion statement pieces like the Apple Watch, there are a variety of ways to track and maintain constant access to your digital life. But a new wave of wearables has entered the market, focused less on our bodies (and digital connectedness) and more on our feelings. Muse is a meditation headband that leads users through a series of brain activities to achieve a sense of calm. Dreem, which is not on the market yet, will focus on using sound and vibration to send users into deeper, better sleep. Thync fits squarely into this category: Wearables that are more concerned with actually changing how you sleep than with how that sleep is reported. It wants to disrupt our dependency on chemicals.

Thync is essentially a different form of a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation — or tDCS. It’s similar to transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units as well. In simpler terms, Thync uses weak electrical currents to target your nerves and send signal commands to your brain. (TENS units have been used to treat anxiety and depression, among other mental ailments, but their efficacy has been debated.) If you have doubts about Thync, that’s legitimate; if you think the rave reviews are the placebo effect at work, you could be right — but neither of those things changes that many people believe Thync made them feel better; or, at least, enjoy how it made them feel. This year at CES, CEO Isy Goldwasser told me that after Thync’s initial release the company learned that the setting meant to calm and relax users was working better than the one to increase energy — thus Thync is pivoting to focus on that function with its new release, called Thync Relax. The device, which will be released in the spring, has two modes in the app you use to control the device — “Deep Relax” and “Deep Sleep.”

“Now we’re targeting the nerves behind the neck,” Goldwasser said. “We wanted to make it very easy … we’re so past the point of whether it works or not — it works, now it’s how do we make it easy for people to use.”

Companies like Thync want to help us feel better, but there are other “feelings” products — like Emora, a “smart” bracelet I saw at CES that allows you to “share emotions” — that want to achieve something something more metaphysical. The Emora bracelet uses light and color to display your moods, and keeps a sort of diary. “Unlike fitness and medical wearables, the Emora translates each user’s unique heartbeat pattern into a mood-pulse light from electrocardiogram,” an Emora press release explains. Feel, a device with a similar conceit, was also at CES. The sleeker Feel bracelet tracks your mood and coaches users on how to feel better. Both products are concerned with wellness, an increasingly trendy buzzword in Silicon Valley.

This market, obsessed with fine-tuning the mind and its moods, includes products like Thync, Muse, and Feel, but also seeps into the growing nootropics and micro-dosing subcultures. These are different tools chasing the same end game: to make your brain as perfect as possible. To make you feel as good as you can feel, to become a more efficient human — that, after all, is the subtle (or not so subtle) goal of all technology. (We aren’t just competing against each other now; there are the AI workers to fight against, too.) Tracking is no longer enough, and all the charts and graphics mapping our bodies’ physical performance have grown boring; now we’re trying to fix our brains.

“[People using Thync are] more productive, they’re better parents, they’re better spouses, and better girlfriends and boyfriends,” Goldwasser said. He says customers have made claims of quitting Xanax and coffee because of the device’s effects. “Look at the impact of this — if you can lower stress in a chemical-free way, elevate your mood, get better sleep … why wouldn’t you do it?”

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried Thync. The company originally introduced itself at CES back in 2015, and I stuck the device to the side of my temple and back of my neck and allowed the app to zap me full of energy. Or, at least, I think that’s what it did — I was demoing a new device in a highly unscientific setting. I was ragged and running on little sleep, and there is no way to know if the device was what made me feel more energetic or if the placebo effect was working its magic. Either way, I felt better. Or different, at least.

(Molly McHugh)
(Molly McHugh)

The new Thync is eschewing its focus on energizing users and solely addressing relaxation, sleep, and help with anxiety. The goal for the company, though, remains the same. “We want to improve emotional and mental well-being with technology,” Goldwasser told me. We met on the casino floor at the Venetian; we couldn’t get a table inside the small cafe next to the slot machines, so we simply chose a free machine and started chatting amongst the waitresses, gamblers, and thick cigarette smoke. (Maybe this was a smart sell: Throw someone into the nightmarish cacophony of a Vegas casino in the afternoon and talk to them about how to decrease their anxiety. Seriously, take my money.)

“We believe we can make it so convenient and accessible to lower your stress, improve your mood, improve your sleep, that everyone will want to do it over time,” Goldwasser said.

The original Thync, which used an adhesive to attach to the side of your head and the back of your neck, proved daunting for users. Thync Relax attaches more easily to the body, but it features the same adhesive strip and the design is much the same, as is the function: Users connect via Bluetooth and the Thync app, adjusting the level of stimulation desired. (On average, I was turning the unit to about 96 percent.)

“You want to be able to feel it, but you don’t want it to be uncomfortable,” Goldwasser said.

There in the casino, Goldwasser stuck the device to the back of my neck, and told me to wander the floor for a while to feel it working. I walked up and down the frenetic floral red carpets, feeling gentle zaps against the base of my neck, up to my skull. I liked it. The little buzzes were like gentle brain massages, and I imagined them tweaking my nervous system to manipulate me into relaxation.

I have no idea if that’s what it actually did, because an eight-minute walk around a casino during an interview is the least relaxing thing I can think of. Maybe I felt calmer, but I couldn’t tell, and Goldwasser told me that the effects get stronger the more you use it — it’s possible this first time didn’t do much. But he sent me home with a unit, and I tried it in different settings: in hotel rooms, on planes, at friends’ houses, and, of course, before bed.

I used Thync for about a week straight; the first night it was impossible to tell if it was working — CES exhaustion was itself a drug, and I was hooked all week. When I left Las Vegas, I thought I’d finally determine if Thync actually worked. But I still felt unsure. Then, on night no. 4, I turned a corner. I strapped myself up with the unit, selected the “Deep Sleep” mode, and, while not even remotely tired, I lay down in bed to read and watch Netflix until my overactive brain wore itself out. Instead, within 15 minutes, I was struggling to keep my eyes open, my heartbeat getting slower and slower. My body had an almost thick feeling as I slowly closed my laptop and set my book down. I was barely able to summon the will to turn my lamp off. And I slept. I slept hard and deep and for more than eight hours — a feat I haven’t accomplished without pills for months.

Was it the power of Thync? I don’t know, not for sure. Goldwasser told me there was no question about whether the product works anymore — it does, he says. When I asked him about the market on mixing technology with feelings, he clarifies that what Thync does is different than devices that simply measure mood. “This is feelings, emotions based on Thync changing your physiology,” he said. It’s just one of the many steps we’re willing to take to manipulate ourselves into being better humans — the body is controllable, and we’re using technology to do just that. But the mind is another thing entirely. As uncertain as we might be about how well any of it’s working, it’s beginning to feel like we have no option but to try.