Perched atop my indoor bicycle trainer and hammering away in preparation for the South Beach triathlon in Miami, I reached up towards my ears and pressed the button on the high-tech “Beats-By-Dre-esque” headphones wrapped around my skull. Within seconds, invisible pins and needles dug into the top of my head, and for the next twenty minutes, the pinpricks increased in intensity. I tried to focus on pedaling harder while ignoring the perception that tiny aliens with acupuncture needles were attacking my cranium.
The headphones were no ordinary headphones, but rather a special device designed for transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) of the nervous system. The end result? Decreased perception of pain, increased skill acquisition and hand-eye coordination, and the ability to blast through a normally soul-crushing workout with seeming ease. Perhaps I’m a masochist who has spent far too much time running through forests wielding my obstacle racing spear, but I’m kind of enchanted with the concept of using shocks, electricity, sound waves, magnets and a host of other biohacks to enhance one’s body.
I’m totally not kidding. From shocking my gonads into better orgasms to putting magnets on my collarbone (and admittedly, my nether regions) for better sleep and better sex, to blasting my body with healing acoustics, if it’s legal and if it’s safe, I’ve probably messed around with it (and yeah, that includes running through electroshock cables in Tough Mudder races, covered in mud with a dumb grin on my face).
So when I read the New Yorker article entitled “For The Golden State Warriors Brain Zapping Could Provide An Edge?”, I immediately perked up. Turns out the freakin’ NBA professional basketball champions used something called transcranial direct-current stimulation, or tDCS, to shock their heads before practice and before games.
The headphones-like device the Warriors were using is perhaps something you’ve heard of before. It’s called “Halo Sport”, and was designed by a scientist by the name of Dr. Daniel Chao, who had previously worked at a company that used brain stimulation to treat epilepsy. The tDCS built into the Halo headphones relies upon a technology which, in its simplest form, involves attaching a couple of electrodes to a battery, sticking them to your head, and sending a tiny current (about five hundred to a thousand times lower than that used in electroshock therapy or an obstacle course race) through your brain.
The current changes the excitability of individual neurons, causing them to fire just a bit more quickly and readily during skill acquisition training. The electrodes incorporated in the Halo headphones are positioned to send a current through an area of your brain called the motor cortex, the control center from which commands to your muscles originate. The idea is that you put the headphones on for twenty minutes in the early stages of your workout or during your warmup (or even before playing a left-right hand coordination activity like a video game or a musical instrument), activate the stimulation with the associated smartphone app then begin training – as your brain delivers “stronger, more synchronous” signals to your muscles.
At the time that I read this article in the New Yorker about the Golden State Warriors’ brain-hacking experiments, the concept of using electrical waves to change one’s brain really wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar concept to me. For example, I been familiar for quite some time with the popular “9-Volt Nirvana” Radiolab podcast episode in which Sally Adee, an editor at New Scientist, reveals she was at a conference for DARPA – The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – when she heard about a way to speed up learning with something called transcranial direct current stimulation. In the episode, Sally finds herself wielding an M4 assault rifle, picking off enemy combatants with a battery wired to her temple, and discovering some pretty shocking improvements in her sniper skills (the already existent Reddit forum on building your own tDCS unit exploded after that particular episode came out).
Even back in 2013, I wrote an article about what was, back then, a groundbreaking new study on cyclists in which Brazilian sports scientists used tDCS to apply a tiny electrical current to the cortex in the brain. The results of that brain tweaking were actually pretty darn impressive. After 20 minutes of real or fake brain stimulation, the cyclists completed an all-out ride to exhaustion. And sure enough – the cyclists who underwent the electrical stimulation had significantly lower heart rates, lower perceived exertion and a 4% higher power output (that may sound small, but is actually huge for a cyclist).
But tDCS isn’t the only piece of brain-upgrading technology you now have access to in the comfort of your own home, even if you’re not a professional athlete. Let’s say you’ve done a good job of supporting your brain health. You’re avoiding pro-inflammatory foods, eating lots of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, perhaps you’ve found a nootropic stack with favorable results, but you want more.
You want to live better through modern science and you know there are tools out there to get you to peak mental capacity. You want to maximize your work productivity, be motivated to give every workout the mental focus it deserves, read faster, speak better, and operate in a way you never have before.
You’re in luck. They may not yet be mainstream, but there is a whole host of tools that are safe and enable you to do things like increase blood flow to your brain, improve cognitive performance and skill acquisition, allow for better focus during a workout, and even allow you to increase awareness and decrease stress. Here are six proven tools I personally use that I guarantee will catapult your brain to the next level.
Six Tools For Brain Optimization
#1: PEMF (Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy)
On my bedside is a tiny handheld unit called a “Flexpulse”, which I consider to be a small, portable “DJ for my brain”. By adjusting the frequency emitted by the device, I can use a 3Hz frequency to lull my brain into relaxed Delta brain waves, a 10Hz frequency to generate focused Alpha brain waves or a 23Hz frequency to produce high alert Beta brain waves. The Flexpulse generates a special kind of frequency called “PEMF”, and I’ve personally found that placing the square pad of unit on the back of my head (directly on my occipital bone) for a night of sleep or a quick nap (often combined with the Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation you’ll discover later in this article), I can knock myself out in no time flat for a perfect portion of slumber.
While the small portable Flexpulse (another comparable device is the Earthpulse) is a perfect introduction to the wide variety of potential therapeutic applications of PEMF, the true “Cadillac” of PEMF therapy is a very large unit – about the size of a massage table – called the PulseCenter XL Pro. Both myself and Tony Robbins are huge fans of this massive, whole-body-treatment setup, which can be used for everything from muscle sprains to headaches to sleep induction. While I explained in this podcast with Dr. William Pawluk how PEMF can be a potent recovery-enhancing tool, it’s quite interesting how these frequencies can affect neurological function and mental performance.
So how exactly does PEMF work for the brain? When applied to the head, PEMFs have been shown to have significant neural effects, with profound changes elicited on brain neurotransmitter levels, monoamine function (such as dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin), improved circulation and reaction time, increased stem cells and growth gene factors, and charge movement from neuronal membranes of cortical neurons. Even a very weak PEMF signal will stimulate about 25 billion neurons! Want more? Check out this article by Dr. Pawluk.
In 2017, I visited the Peak Brain Institute in Los Angeles, California for a special type of advanced brain scan and brain mapping system called a quantified electroencephalography, or “QEEG”, and I was shocked at what they discovered in my brain.
Dr. Andrew Hill oversaw the entire mapping protocol. Dr. Hill, a UCLA trained cognitive neuroscientist, lecturer, discovered what he described as some pretty severe patterns of excess stressful beta waves, excess theta waves, and excess delta waves in my brain.
What's that mean, exactly? Basically, it suggests that I have had some history of concussions and traumatic brain injury (which I indeed have had, in everything from football to mountain biking to kickboxing), as well as built-up deficits of attention, increased distractibility, limited sleep potential and less-than-optimal cognitive performance from life, travel, toxins, head injuries and beyond.
Two months after the scan, I hopped on a plane back to LA, and ventured back into the Peak Brain Institute for three days of intensive training to fix my brain, returning to Spokane with a briefcase packed with a laptop, electrodes, conducting gel, and everything I needed to use neurofeedback to fix my brain. The next three months I trained for 30 minutes every other day using a style of neurofeedback I can best describe as “meditation on steroids”. Mostly, my protocol involved flying a spaceship with my mind. Each time my brain subconsciously shifted into brainwave patterns considered to be unfavorable, the spaceship would stop flying and the music generated by the neurofeedback software would fade away, very much like a cognitive “slap on the wrist”.
So how exactly does neurofeedback work? Technically, it’s is a non-invasive form of what is known in the medical industry as “central nervous system biofeedback”. It trains the brain to develop new resources by encouraging certain areas to raise or lower the amplitude and ratios of particular brainwaves. To a very large extent, and unlike peripheral biofeedback such as practicing a physical exercise like a handstand, neurofeedback is an entirely non-voluntary process in which you are shaping the brain giving the brain feedback only when it’s doing certain things. Professional clinicians report that about 90% of users notice a significant positive impact from this style of training, and it can be used for everything from decreasing anxiety and stress to inducing faster sleep onset to even resetting tolerance to marijuana and alcohol.
Neurofeedback training simply involves the placement of electrodes on the scalp, which produces a signal then picked up by an EEG amplifier. These signals are fed into software that then sends back to the user some form of visual and/or auditory “feedback” or reward. This reward stimulus is given when the brain produces desired brainwave changes in amplitude or frequency.
Unlike many books and magazines would have you to believe, this type of protocol is slightly risky, and not just something you download a free neurofeedback app to do. Neurofeedback is a powerful tool and every brain is different, so the single most crucial aspect of neurofeedback training is selecting the proper protocol. Although the QEEG provides crucial information about one person’s brain, the training plan itself needs to be adaptive and iterative, based upon how someone responds to the training, which is why it's important to have the entire testing and training process overseen by a neurofeedback practitioner. Heck, when I did my three months of training with the Peak Brain Institute, Dr. Hill and I were text and email buddies nearly every day.
Neurofeedback can produce side effects, although they are generally minor and short lasting – and also informative to a neurofeedback practitioner. If you get adverse effects, protocols can be adjusted to steer the brain in a different direction. But if you are training yourself with no supervision and no sense of what’s actually happening in your brain, you can easily produce negative side effects and if you keep doing it you can cause these negative effects to become permanent. So proceed with caution, but with the understanding that neurofeedback is one of the more powerful pieces of headgear that can be used to enhance or change your brain.
Want to learn more about my adventures with the Peak Brain Institute, or visit this place yourself? Check out the podcast with Dr. Hill entitled “How To Rewire Your Brain For Better Sleep, Reset Your Brain’s Tolerance To Marijuana & Alcohol, Fly Spaceships With Your Mind & Much More“. For an even more advanced form of neurofeedback, keep reading, because I'll be mentioning the “Biocybernaut Institute”, which is definitely not for the faint of heart or the light of wallet.
Scattered across the internet, there are several interesting photos of me in which I have a giant laser-light device on my head lighting up my skull like a Christmas tree, along with a nasal light probe shoved up into my left nostril. The device, called a “Vielight Neuro”, operates on the principle of photobiomodulation, and is something I consider to be the equivalent of a full body cup of coffee, most notably for the head.
Photobiomodulation can not only regulate or even “hack” your body’s natural circadian rhythm, it can also shut down inflammation in the brain, and produce copious amounts of nitric oxide in neural tissue (think of this like “Viagra” for your brain), boost oxygenation and enhance memory function and cognition with a special form of light called “near infrared light stimulation”. This type of device used to be something you could only find in a hospital or expensive clinical setting, however, it can now be delivered via relatively affordable headset device. OK, OK, the initial price point is a cool 800 bucks, but considering the intriguing studies going on right now in terms of reversal or control of issues like dementia and Alzheimer's using photobiomodulation, I consider it to be worth owning.
This device makes use of transcranial-intranasal light therapy with a small probe that is inserted into the nostril, along with a light-producing headset fitted over the skull. Both emit infrared light at a frequency that actually causes nitric oxide production and activates cellular mitochondria activity in neural tissue via light stimulation of blood capillaries in the nasal cavity. Much of the nitric oxide produced by this effect is not only felt in your head but also crosses through your blood-brain barrier to the rest of your body. This means you can use photobiomodulation to beat a hangover, assist with sleep, boost blood flow before a workout, or any other time you want to quell brain inflammation or improve focus.
#4: Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation (CES)
The original brain biohacking wearable was an electric torpedo fish.
Yep: you read right. In 46AD, the personal physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius applied an electric torpedo fish to the Emperor’s forehead to successfully relieve his migraines. Don't believe me? Check out the article “Thousands of Years Before Modern Electricity, Ancient Romans Used Electrotherapy to Effectively Treat Neurological Conditions“.
This first “wearable” was actually alive, and the “user experience” was provided by the twitching underbelly of the fish, which was enraged from being pulled out of the sea and which covered the top half of the patient’s face. It filled the patient’s nose with its fishy scent and delivered at first a painful and then numbing electric shock (roughly the same voltage as a hairdryer dropped in a bathtub). “These are still the early days of wearable neurostimulation,” an ancient tech blogger would have reported, “But on the bright side, the device, while possessing eyes and teeth, is at least conveniently wireless.” Heh. nToday we know that electrically stimulating the trigeminal nerve, which runs in part beneath the forehead, does in fact effectively suppress migraines. Indeed, the FDA approved the first wearable neurostimulation device to treat migraines in 2012 and like the torpedo fish, the wearable’s electrode is placed on the forehead.
But the idea of using electrical stimulation to affect not only pain perception but mood and sleep, arose more recently in human history, and you can now purchase deep brain stimulation devices called “Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulators” (also known by the far less marketable term “electroconvulsive therapy” or ECT) that cause your body to experience a massive natural release of dopamine, serotonin and fall into a state of deep relaxation, no drugs required.
ECT first came into use in 1938. The original ECT user experience was significantly worse than having an electric fish placed on your head (as Jack Nicholson vividly demonstrated in the 1975 film One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). That film would effectively brand ECT, and neurostimulation in general, for the next 30+ years as something barbaric, despite the fact that anesthesia is widely used for ECT procedures. Since the 1970’s, in fact, ECT patients have quietly slept through their shock therapy and have woken up feeling better – but you wouldn’t know that from seeing the movie.
The 1970’s also saw the rise of psychiatric medications, which provided a far superior user experience to ECT, at least initially. This innovation helped inspire a small group of electrical engineers to partner with medical researchers to develop more discrete, non-invasive forms of neurostimulation that delivered small, comfortable doses of electricity on a daily basis, as opposed to the infrequent, seizure-inducing doses of ECT. The idea, in essence, was to achieve a sort of “user experience parity” between a daily antidepressant pill and a daily low dose of electricity. By the mid-1970s, a number of well-controlled published studies began to validate small dose, alternating current electrotherapy, for the treatment of depression and anxiety as well as the treatment of insomnia. A tiny handful of devices emerged from these studies as something that doctors were willing to prescribe, and in 1976, the FDA grandfathered cranial electrotherapy stimulation devices into the modern era of federal regulation.
But these early devices were often the size of small typewriters and not well suited for home use, and none were successfully commercialized for the mass market. However, by the 1980’s, electrical engineers had developed a small, portable neurostimulation CES device that deployed two simple electrodes worn beneath a headband. Not only was the device easy and comfortable to use, but it employed multiple frequencies that allowed its alternating current to reach deep within the brain. The stimulation was found to effectively dampen the brain’s default mode network, the center region of the brain that is hyperactive during periods of stress.
The CES device that I currently use is called a “CIRCADIA” (use code GREENFIELD to get $100 off), and works like gangbusters if I’m agitated, frustrated and moody, feeling overwhelmed, having difficulty relaxing and quieting my mind, have a headache, insomnia, jitteriness or a tight jaw. If you struggle with any of these issues, owning a CES device is a wise strategy.
#5: Brainwave Entrainment
Very similar to the Circadia are special sets of headphones and eyewear that transform the brain using what is called “brainwave entrainment”. Brainwave entrainment involves using audio or visual stimuli to influence or “entrain” specific modes of electrical activity in your brain. Unlike neurofeedback (which you’ve learned can target specific areas of the brain) brainwave entrainment is less targeted. During a session of brainwave entrainment, you are capable of increasing hemispheric synchronization, or communication between the right and left hemispheres, which is very similar to what you’d achieve with a microdose of LSD or learning a new skill or sport.
Brainwave entrainment technically involves any method that causes your brainwave frequencies to fall into step with a specific frequency. It's based on the concept that your brain has a tendency to change its dominant electrical frequency towards the frequency of whatever dominant external stimulus it is exposed to. This allows you to reach different states of consciousness, such as deep relaxation or expanded states of awareness.
There are many different machines you can purchase that are specifically designed for brainwave entrainment. Some are simply audio apps that are free or inexpensive, and others involve either an app or piece of software that connects to the headset of a smartphone or computer or a handheld device that connects to headphones and eyewear, including:
Sounds: There are patented forms of brainwave entrainment program that are known for using binaural beats, such as Holosync. Other similar programs exist, many of which use binaural beats and monaural tones (these require use of headphones), while other sound systems rely on isochronic tones and do not require headphones. You can read more about the difference between binaural beats, monaural tones and isochronic tones here. Other options rely upon “artificial intelligence” to create soundtracks that elicit focus, creativity or relaxation (Brain.FM is one of the most popular and you can listen to my podcast on it here). For sleep and relaxation, which is primarily what I use sounds for, I’m personally partial to binaural beats combined with artificial intelligence, and for that, I use the app “Sleepstream” combined with “Brain.FM“, and often play the two simultaneously. My head hasn't exploded yet.
Audio-Visual Machines: These small, phone-sized machines utilize flashing pulses of visual and auditory stimuli to alter brain waves. One of the better units is the David DELIGHT made by “MindAlive”.
Biocybernaut training: This is a more intensive form of training often referred to as approximating several years of zen or meditation. During this training, you’ll spend a full week immersed in a combination of neurofeedback and brainwave entrainment. Not for the faint of heart, and definitely guaranteed to lighten your wallet, this form of training, when done once in a lifetime, can produce creativity and focus results that last for the rest of your life.
Many of the other sound methods I've used have been primarily for recovery, but have the bonus of better focus, creativity and sleep too, particularly including Michael Tyrell's audios for relaxation and focus.
#6: N-Back Training
If you see my eyebrows furrowed and fumbling with my smartphone while waiting for a flight to board, standing at the DMV office or waiting for a chiropractic adjustment, it’s highly likely that I’m using an N-back training app.
Available as simple, free or inexpensive phone-app based programs or computer software, N-back training involves increasingly difficult levels of short-term memory recall of certain letters and numbers. One University of Switzerland study and a 2012 German study demonstrated that just a few weeks of N-Back training can increase executive function, along with the abilities to practice mental discipline, concentrate intently on one thing while completely ignoring something else, mentally compartmentalize activities, and direct attention with extreme specificity or apply all creative energy towards a task until it's completion. In other words, consider this to induce the complete opposite of ADD.
So can’t you just complete a crossword puzzle, play Sudoku or read a riddle book?
While it is indeed true that these type of brain aerobic and brain exercises help “age-proof” the brain and keep it functioning at peak capacity, none are as powerful as the methods described above. But should you want to go the simple route, you should know that to qualify as an effective brain exercise, an activity must present your brain with novelty, variety, and challenge. In addition to crossword puzzles, brain aerobic books, new board games or new mind-challenging sports such as ping-pong (did you know table tennis players are the smartest athletes on the planet – and along the same lines as that, top chess players achieve longevity benefits similar to elite athletes?), it can also include structured apps like the Lumosity app or Brainscape app, which allows you to create your own flashcards and learning activities, or FitBrains.com which is chock full of fun, new brain games you can try. To stay on the cutting edge of brain-hacking gear, I’d also recommend you check out the website Quantified Self.
Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback about any of these brain biohacking techniques? Leave your comments below and I will reply!