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Invasion of the Body Hackers

Not satisfied with optimizing code, Silicon Valley tries to tweak its brain chemistry.

body hacking

This is your brain on potato starch.

 

As it turns out, the fully optimized human looks, sounds, and acts a lot like the regular old human: gray hoodie, blue jeans, a slightly wan Sunday morning expression. Sitting in an Ocean Beach coffee shop, Abelard Lindsay could be any thirtysomething San Francisco software developer. Until, that is, you ask him about his daily routine.

“Well,” he says, excitement building on his face, “I wake up, get out of bed, and take, like, 20 different supplements”—here he ticks off a list of impenetrably polysyllabic names: centrophenoxine, betaine HCL, sulbutiamine, astragalus. “And then I go to work and do my work stuff”—meaning programming for a company that he’d rather not name because he’s worried about his hobby affecting his professional life (Abelard Lindsay is a pseudonym that he uses on web forums). “When I’m sticking to my diet, I take protein powder, potato starch, Himalayan salt, inulin, krill oil, kombucha, and a bunch of probiotics at night.” He eats cottage cheese and fruit for lunch, walks a half mile or so each way to and from his office, and listens to podcasts on the way (“I try to fill up my brain with useful stuff”). 

To hear Lindsay tell it, all this has added up to a set of superhuman powers that have improved all aspects of his life. “It’s like observing one’s internal psychology with the tweaking of these knobs, if you will. It’s like turning up the bass, or the treble. You get this feeling that’s sort of like the monolith in 2001.” He doesn’t even debate people on Reddit anymore, he says. “I kind of stopped bothering with arguing about politics or economics. Because when I got to the level of understanding that I did, you can’t really have a conversation with most people about it because they don’t know enough. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I could convince you about flaws in Keynesian economic models, but there will be a thousand others just like you when I’m done.’” He says this with an odd mixture of sadness and pride, the way a formerly overweight person might talk about a favorite pair of pants that have grown too loose around the waist.

Lindsay is but one of many adherents of bio-hacking, a sprawling movement of self-tinkerers whose methods and interests vary widely, but who are generally interested in what Dave Asprey, a figurehead of the cause, describes as “the art and science of changing the environment inside and outside yourself so that you can perform at a level you want.” Kevin Orosz, a Santa Cruz–based practitioner, puts it more simply: “It’s applying the scientific method to every part of your life.”

In its most extreme form, the movement manifests in so-called grinders, people who implant magnets and (purportedly) human-safe sensors into their fingertips or forearms—often in someone’s basement, often without anesthesia—as a means of getting closer to their cyborg ideals. At its most quotidian, it’s composed of more or less mainstream health nuts who espouse the value of a paleo diet and a good exercise regimen for maximum mental acuity. But most biohackers fall somewhere between those two poles. Take Lindsay, whose exploration has included years and years and thousands of dollars’ worth of research into what the biohacking community calls nootropics: submedical supplements designed to enhance focus and cognitive function—smart drugs, essentially. Or Marc, a 24-year-old Android developer who tells me that he takes a fistful of pills—both legal and less than—to stay sharp as he codes into the night (and who asked not to be identified by his real name, lest “my mom lose her shit”). Or Frank,a soft-spoken 25-year-old MIT physics grad who got into cranial stimulation—that is, very low-grade electric shocks, delivered via electrodes strapped to his earlobes—in order to cure insomnia and lessen his social anxiety. Or Hank Pellissier, an East Bay journalist turned “brain enhancement” evangelist in his 60s who spends his days playing brain games as he attempts to best his high school SAT score. Or Ray Kurzweil, the famed author, futurist, and Google engineer who reportedly takes 150 pills a day in the interest of extending his life.

Though the biohacking movement is not confined to Silicon Valley, a high percentage of its proponents either work in tech or are, at the very least, engaged in relatively techie pursuits. Among the movement’s ever-shifting, overlapping factions are so-called transhumanists like Kurzweil, who are focused on unlocking immortality via technological advancement. Then there are the nootropics and cognitive-enhancement obsessives—essentially the geek world’s answer to body-builders—to whom peak performance means not massive delts, but crystal-clear mental focus and boundless cognitive energy. Not to mention the data-obsessed quantified-health fanatics and self-identified biopunks; the libertarian types who started making brain pills in their basements out of deep ideological frustration with the biomedical establishment; and the stressed-out Stanford computer science majors who just need a boost for their third straight all-nighter.

But biohacking’s connection with Silicon Valley runs deeper than its per capita geek density. Both tech and biohacking are marked by a bootstrapping, DIY ethos, a quasi-religious belief in experimentation, and the confidence (some might call it hubris) that a person with the right tools can solve any of the world’s problems. Bodies, in this mode of thinking, are not all that different from computers: inputs and outputs. “Computer guys are into systems thinking,” says Lindsay. “And the body is this really, really large enterprise system written by some crazy genius in this assembly language that consists of four base pairs, and it runs an insanely complicated run-time called organic chemistry, and medical studies are penned by people to document various parts of this sprawling legacy system. Biohackers are kind of making patches to its production, consequences be damned. How do I tweak the system to make it run better?”

Peak performance, in Lindsay’s world, has been elevated from aspiration to moral imperative, and the language surrounding it is appropriately grandiose. “It’s like, we are not just leaves in the winds of fate,” one flip-flop-wearing enthusiast explains to me. Lindsay, too, sees his work with nootropics as almost a humanitarian endeavor: “It’s about increasing humanity’s potential through scientific intelligence enhancement.” To put it another way, the movement isn’t just about enabling a bunch of well-paid Valleyites to squeeze an extra hour of coding into their day—it’s about nothing less than the perfection of mankind.

 

On a blindingly sunny September weekend in Southern California, 500 or so biohackers and brain tinkerers and people who would like to sell them things congregate at the Pasadena Convention Center for the Bulletproof Biohacking Conference, a three-day, $1,599 series of workshops with names like “the Champions Blueprint” and “Spartan Up!” Though this year the conference has relocated from San Francisco to Southern California, it presents the dissonant mix of unabashed corporatism and easy enlightenment that defines certain corners of Silicon Valley. If Steve Jobs were alive today, he’d likely be here, a tangerine-colored lanyard around his neck, earnestly discussing the intersection between qigong and peak performance over paleo steak salad.

Almost everyone at Bulletproof is attractive in the discomfiting manner of ultramarathoners— lean, taut, wildly alert, manifestly overachieving. As conversationalists, they’re a little goofy and a bit self-righteous, but also earnest, evangelical, and basically sweet. During session breaks the attendees mill around, clutching paper cups of white-capped, butter-infused coffee and chatting about their own mixed successes at biohacking. A pair of surfer-style Santa Cruz residents talk to me about “bridging the gap between science and consciousness.” At the oxygen bar, a middle- aged Angeleno tries to sell me on the benefits of orgasmic meditation. One presenter informs the audience that “you’re already using some age-old technologies. Gratitude is one of them.” Another lecture, on the benefits of healthy eating, includes the phrase “rock-star poops.”

The spiritual leader here is Asprey, a trim, forty-something former software designer whose company, Bulletproof, organized the conference, now in its second year. Asprey has managed to parlay several years’ worth of recreational fiddling with his brain and body into a lucrative empire that includes some 20 employees, a suite of branded products, and a weekly podcast that routinely ranks among the top downloads in the fitness and nutrition category on iTunes. Dozens of adoring fans gather near the dais after each of Asprey’s many speeches, politely grilling him about how to tweak their diet or which brand of butter they should be putting in their coffee.

In 2013, Yahoo News called Asprey “a nutty, charmingly solipsistic rich person,” and the descriptor more or less fits. Like any good health guru, from Subway Jared on up, he has an inspirational backstory: Several years ago, he was just another fat, sick, tired guy in his 20s who was looking for ways to combat his nearly constant cognitive “fuzziness.” But then, on a trip to Tibet, he discovered what would later become his cash cow, so to speak: butter-infused tea, which indigenous Tibetans have been drinking for centuries. The drink’s high fat content purportedly has a host of salutary mental and physical effects, including fat loss and, according to Asprey, “a massive impact on cognitive function.” When he returned from Tibet, he adapted the formula, swapping out hard-to-find yak butter for grass-fed Irish butter and tea for organic Central American coffee that he describes as having been “carefully produced and tested...to target the lowest toxin content.” He claims that by drinking this coffee (and spending $300,000 on other forms of self-experimentation), he lost 100 pounds and gained more than 20 IQ points. He posted the recipe on his blog in 2010, and, slowly but surely, what would come to be known as the Bulletproof movement ballooned, aided by a number of early adopters and their prodigious Internet testimonials.

Asprey and his acolytes are fond of describing Bulletproof as a lifestyle, and from a purely consumptive standpoint, they’re not wrong: In addition to Asprey’s proprietary coffee blend, the company’s web store offers Bulletproof-branded chocolate, tea, protein powder, supplements, and T-shirts. The company has expanded into the nootropics market through its Unfair Advantage brand of pills, which retail for $60 for one month’s supply. At the conference, Asprey announced plans to open a brick-and-mortar store in Los Angeles (he wanted to do it in San Francisco, but found rents too expensive).

At the center of the empire, though, is Bulletproof Coffee, which Asprey’s followers describe as something between an exceptionally rich latte and melted, unsweetened coffee ice cream. In the past couple of years, Bulletproofing has swiftly gone from hyper-niche trend to tech-world cliché on the order of Razor Scooters and cereal bars. In July, Fast Company anointed the coffee “the new power drink of Silicon Valley,” quoting fans such as Omid Ashtari, Twitter’s head of sports and entertainment partnerships, who raved, “The first time I tried it, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself because it hit my brain so hard. It was like an out-of-body experience.” This claim was hard for me to verify: Though I tried it several times at and after the conference, I couldn’t drink butter coffee without gagging. But foul taste hasn’t stopped Bulletproof from growing rapidly: According to Fast Company, Asprey claims that his company’s revenues have increased 700 percent since 2013.

 

While Asprey’s empire represents biohacking’s most outward-facing, openly commercial wing, the bulk of the movement exists more quietly, a network of solitary tinkerers who found their community in the deep recesses of the web. Take Frank, who got into biohacking as an undergrad to boost his productivity and later expanded his regimen to combat social anxiety that he describes as “almost like a slight form of Asperger’s.” After experimenting with a variety of nootropics, he took out a $4,000 loan this summer to buy an advanced neurofeedback system consisting of an electroencephalograph, a hemoencephalograph, and a battery of “protocols”—brain exercises, basically—designed to retrain his neurology by stimulating and measuring brain activity.

Such contraptions—whether sold commercially or jury-rigged via nine-volt batteries and a wet dishrag—are as popular with guys like Frank as they are unloved by members of the medical establishment. When I ask Amit Etkin, a Stanford neuroscientist and psychologist, about their efficacy and safety, he lets out a long sigh before politely explaining that “as a medical professional, I need to emphasize that these devices are not FDA approved. Their effects are unclear, and how safe they are to use is unclear.”

Not that that’s stopping Frank: “I joke with my friends, ‘In a few months I’ll have a new brain. You won’t even know it.’” Like many biohacking true believers, he sees his efforts as something of a spiritual pursuit. “I feel like I’ve been on cruise control for a long time,” he says. “Everything seemed like a daze for 20 years.” But on the drugs and after the neurofeedback system, “you’re calmer. You’re more perceptive. I feel like a fuller person. It’s like things that may have been trimmed away from me over the years are coming back to me. Your whole system is just vibing. It gave me access to comfort that I didn’t have before.”

In Frank, it’s easy to see the appeal of biohacking: He has struggled nearly his whole life with social anxiety, and neurofeedback represents a way out. And his abstractly positive, everything-is-vibing rhetoric is common among biohackers: They can’t necessarily pinpoint how, exactly, what they’re doing is working—they just sense that it is. As a cheerful Cisco employee wearing frog-toe shoes rhapsodizes to me about his experiences with 40 Years of Zen (an Asprey-endorsed neurofeedback program that promises its users 12 more IQ points, more creativity, and less mental clutter in exchange for seven days of their lives and $15,000), “Mentally, I’m a lot sharper. Everything is just easier. Everything is more 3-D.”

Many biohackers interested in quantification (which is to say, most of them) take tests to measure improvements in their cognitive function. But according to Dena Dubal, a neurologist and neuroscientist at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, that ostensibly improved mental acuity doesn’t necessarily equate to improved quality of life. “Even if you take some of the standardized batteries of neuropsychological tests, we don’t know what that translates to,” she says. “Are people better at their jobs, having more fulfilling relationships, or more happy? Maybe. But we just don’t know. And it’s quite difficult to know, empirically.”

What’s more, the doctors caution, there’s a reason that medicine is practiced by medical professionals. “I understand, from the libertarian angle, that there are all sorts of reasons to have skepticism toward the drug industry,” says Stanford’s Etkin. “But with this biohacking stuff, there are just so many issues of safety—not to mention efficacy—that aren’t being addressed. There’s no regulation that guarantees that what you see on the bottle is accurate.” Because these supplements and systems promise vague improvements rather than make specific health claims, they’re not subject to FDA approval—which means that they may be not only ineffective, but dangerous. (Not for nothing do Bulletproof conference attendees sign many-paged waivers before entering the convention hall.)

“There’s this sort of idea that you’re getting something for nothing,” says Etkin. “And there’s a tendency to ignore the risks. In our society, there’s an allure of enhancing yourself easily: There’s little evidence that weight-loss pills work, but it’s still a massive industry.” The bottom line, he says, “is, you don’t get anything for free in this world. It would take a fair bit of evidence for this to cross the bar for me to say that it is something worth doing.”

Biohacking is still such a fringe phenomenon that Etkin was the only one of the doctors and clinical neuroscientists to whom I spoke who had heard of it. But the experts who are willing to speak generally caution that self-experimentation is always a dicey proposition. “In terms of supplements that have not been tested, it’s really hard to know what the effects are,” says Dubal. “And even beyond the individual level, as a society we simply do not fully understand the risks and benefits of cognitive enhancement. And this is coming from someone whose job is finding cognitive enhancements.”

 

The way that many biohackers see it, their movement is a corrective to a medical and pharmaceutical industry that’s trapped in red tape and beset by prohibitive profit incentives. It’s frustrating, Lindsay says. “There are things that would improve the human condition that would never be tried because there’s no money in it, and it’s too risky, and it doesn’t cure disease. That’s where amateurs like me come in.” Lindsay developed his own nootropic—ciltep, a capsule containing artichoke extract and forskolin, a root used in homeopathy—after reading a number of studies about the health benefits of similar ingredients. After a white paper that he wrote on the subject made the rounds on biohacking web forums, a supplement company contacted him about producing ciltep—which promises, among other things, increased motivation and mental endurance—commercially. He leapt at the chance.

Lindsay is distantly related to Jack Dreyfus, a sort of proto-biohacker who, according to his kinsman, “made enormous amounts of money in the mutual fund industry and then...came upon this drug, Dilantin.” The drug—an anti-seizure med whose generic name is phenytoin—supposedly cured Dreyfus’s anxiety and depression. It’s clear that Lindsay feels an affinity with his relative, who, he says, “was overwhelmed with joy” at his Dilantin discovery. But Dreyfus’s story comes with a damning footnote. “He spent the next half of his life promoting Dilantin,” Lindsay says. “He spent like $70 million.”

And: Nobody cared. “That’s kind of a cautionary tale,” says Lindsay. One of Dreyfus’s mistakes, Lindsay maintains, was that he sought the approval of doctors—“who just told him he was a kook.” Lindsay has no plans to repeat that mistake. “My whole approach to this is, yeah, I have no credentials. Normally, drug development starts off with a lot of people, a lot of credentials, a lot of hard work, and then it goes through clinical trials and then it gets patented, gets commercial success, and then the community forms around it. We went the opposite way. We, the amateurs, come up with some ideas about stuff, then the community forms around it, then comes commercial success. Then, maybe one day, people with credentials will start saying something nice about it.”

Maybe so, maybe not. Whether the particular vision presented by people like Asprey and Lindsay ever comes to pass, though, it seems a certainty that biohacking itself is here to stay. “I think it is the future,” says Marc, the Android developer. “It seems pretty obvious that we should have pills that make us better. If you can take something that’s gonna make you way better than you are, why not?”

In the interest of that “why not”—and yes, because the prospect of superhuman brain function is undeniably compelling—I spent several weeks trying any and every biohack I could get my hands on. My efforts included the paleo diet, a battery of Asprey-endorsed oils, a handful of supplements, a session in a hyperbaric chamber, 20 minutes at an oxygen bar and 30 more with electrodes strapped to my face, plus what little butter coffee I managed to choke down. And after all that, I can attest to feeling marginally brighter, the way you feel after a great night’s sleep. But none of the improvements I detected were dramatic enough to obliterate the specter of the placebo effect. All told, I finished my biohacking experiment much as I started it: skeptical and a little befuddled.

When I told biohackers about my difficulties, they inevitably replied that I was, in all likelihood, simply not doing it right—that I wasn’t disciplined enough about my pill cocktails (probably true), that my undying love of pizza was interfering with the paleo diet’s fat-melting, brain-enhancing benefits (certainly true). But ultimately, my brief, beleaguered foray into biohacking ended not because it wasn’t working—it ended because I don’t fully accept the premise that humans are perfectable, or that the ability to work late into the night is an unquestionably noble goal, or that concepts like “peak performance” and “optimization” can even be applied to the messy, ineffable, thoroughly unquantifiable experience of being alive on this planet.

When I ask Asprey what he makes of the idea that suboptimal performance is natural—that perhaps parents of young children are supposed to be exhausted sometimes, that work-addled brains are meant to lose focus after hours of staring at a screen, that bodies are designed to break down—he can barely hide his disdain. “I find that offensive,” he says. “You own the bag of meat that you live in. If it’s not working, doing something about it seems like the most human thing to do.”

That’s the biohacking ethos at its core, but it’s also Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian, anti-authoritarian, efficiency-maximizing dogma writ large. It’s of a piece with Google’s much publicized attempts to “solve death” (after all, what is death if not the final authority?), and it’s thoroughly compatible with the tech industry’s unyielding emphasis on workplace productivity. It’s the view that everything can—and therefore should—be hacked; that no problem can’t be solved with the right equipment and the right systems; that taking control of your own brain chemistry is the ultimate show of personal agency against untrustworthy and sometimes capricious authorities. “People come in from computer hacking,” says Lindsay, “and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we just do whatever the heck we want, and there aren’t any limits. We don’t need any sort of certification or anything—we just do it.’”

Despite his medicine cabinet full of cutting-edge pills, Lindsay wheels out an age-old allegory when working out the risks and rewards of biohacking. “Who was that who flew too close to the sun?” he asks me toward the end of our talk near Ocean Beach. He means Icarus, of course—the mythical Greek who tried to escape Crete wearing wings that his father, Daedalus, had made out of feathers and wax. Icarus’s task was to thread the needle between complacency and hubris: Fly too low and the damp sea air would weigh down his wings; fly too high and the wax would be melted by the sun. It’s easy to see the parallels with biohacking. But, then, Lindsay knows how the story ends. Icarus kept testing the boundaries, flying ever closer to the sun. And then the wax melted, and he plummeted back toward the sea, unfeathered and all too human.

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

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