Hacking Consciousness: The Rise of Transformative Technology

October 13, 2015
Erika Bjune

We may not think of drumming, chanting, dancing, meditation, and ceremony as types of technology, but they are actually the most ancient of technologies geared toward altering states of mind. While they’ve been available to us for thousands of years, a new set of high-tech tools is rising in the form of electronic devices and software applications that are being used to explore, guide, and even enhance human potential.  These tools are being framed by a fairly new movement called Consciousness Hacking, and recently several of us from IONS attended the world’s first Transformative Technology Conference in Palo Alto to participate in defining this emerging area of development.

“Nobody wants to be a machine,” Isy Goldwasser, CEO of Thync, told the audience, “but everyone wants to be awake,” and this was a much-echoed sentiment among attendees throughout the event. Thync is one of several companies bringing “transformative technology” to consumers interested in utilizing electronics to tune and enhance their emotional and intellectual capacities.  The Thync device uses electrical stimulation to activate cranial nerves on the face and neck which, in turn, modulates emotion and creates either Calm or Energy “neurosignals,” or as they put it, “Vibes.”  So instead of taking substances ranging from caffeine to Ambien, people can attach a small plastic triangle to their foreheads connected to a flexible lead that sticks to the neck and then simply press a start button to relieve anxiety or get the boost they need.

I saw many other types of devices, from bands that read and translate brain waves, to Internet-connected heart and breathing monitors, to immersive virtual reality experiences.  They are all designed to provide feedback in service to helping people learn or improve meditation skills, increase focus and performance, sleep more deeply, or even overcome anxiety.  At least, this is what the device and software makers claim, and the people trying out their demos mostly agreed there was something happening for them.

Efficacy, however, is one of the issues that also kept coming up during the conference.  Since most of the devices were not FDA approved, and many had not even been through scientific double-blind testing, there was often no more than the creators’ claims of efficacy behind their products.  That didn’t stop attendees from trying them, and regardless of the lack of supporting evidence, the novelty of having an electronically-induced transformative experience was enough of a driver for me to try everything!

One of my favorite devices was the Muse, a thin headband containing four EEG leads that spans the forehead and hangs over the ears.  It is specifically designed to help people become more proficient at meditating, and uses a mobile app to communicate with the device while you meditate.  When a meditation session is finished, the app provides analytics that indicate how well you were able to maintain a calm mind. My best was 27%, according to the app, so I definitely need to work on that!

There were several projects that involved virtual reality, in which a headset like the Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear was used to put the user into a computer-generated world.  One of these products, called StarFlight VR, uses storytelling and space imagery to ease the user out of states of anxiety and help them sleep.  Another product called SoundSelf turns the user’s voice into colorful fractal patterns that the designer says puts the user into a state of “no mind.”

So, where does IONS fit into all of this?  In addition to being a co-sponsor of the event via our new Innovation Lab initiative, I facilitated a group during the pre-conference summit, and two of our scientists led breakout sessions. Helane Wahbeh led a discussion on using transformative technologies for healing PTSD, and Arnaud Delorme’s group discussed EEG technology and its application in testing experiences of non-dual states.  While much of this technology is currently focused on physical and emotional health, there was little to no talk of using it for psi applications, but our Innovation Lab is gearing up to change that.  The transformative technology movement is still in its infancy, and we are excited to be part of it and bring our grounded research, unique perspectives, and world-class talents to the table!

Erika Bjune is the Chief Information Officer at IONS and a long-time virtual reality hacker with a passion for transformative technologies.

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