Can a New £1,000 Brain Headset Really Make Me Smarter?
Phil Hilton for the The Times - June 29, 2023
I’m wearing a helmet that’s supposed to read my mind and stimulate my brain. I’m told I’ve stepped into a future where those who are forgetful, overthinking and middle-aged can be tweaked, boosted and generally tuned up. The inventor is in the next room and I’m worried my brain will be a disappointment, beyond help.
This is my first foray into the world of mind optimisation, and I’m sceptical and excited in equal measure. It’s a new industry that promises to improve us and counter the aspects of modern life that conspire to destroy our attention span and erode our ability to relax.
The machine I’m testing is called Sens.ai and it launched this month at the Health Optimisation Summit in London, a ticketed show whose attendees come in search of a better version of themselves. Other products at the show included an electro muscle stimulation system and a cold plasma rejuvenation machine — there’s a new wave of tech claiming to offer very science-driven health enhancements for everything from your gut to your face. The Sens.ai headset retails at about £1,000 and is the invention of the Canadian electrical engineer Paola Telfer.
Along with being a tech wizard, she has been meditating all her life, and the gadget appears to be a combination of these two elements. When I meet Telfer she does seem appropriately alert, clear-eyed and contented but her interest in mind-optimisation technology came out of a personal crisis.
“It was a low point in my life. I’d been in a car accident and while I was recovering from that I was running a company, I had a young son, and with my concussion and PTSD I was really not very helpful to any of the people depending on me.”
Telfer was rear-ended in 2015, driving home from work between Vancouver and Whistler, and didn’t realise how serious the implications of the accident were until a few days later. Her brain fog just wasn’t clearing up of its own accord. She was lying on the floor with an ice pack on her head, attempting to make calls and function at the level she was accustomed to.
Her condition took her into the world of brain therapies. Her memory was so reduced that she was unable to manage a work call without extensive preparatory notes. “I knew the call would be an hour long, I knew there would be a business goal, but I had to write down everything I wanted to say so I wouldn’t get lost in the fog.”
Having worked through massage, physio and acupuncture, she eventually found an alternative neurotherapy clinic in Seattle, Washington, where she says intensive courses of neurotherapy treatments led to spectacular improvements. In these courses she was invited to try various meditation styles and shown the effect these had on her brainwaves — she describes the styles of meditation as focused attention, compassion, open awareness and automatic self-transcendence. She says each of these is associated with different brainwave frequencies. At the clinic, these were measured with a standard EEG device, a sensor that detects brain activity.
She and her team say they have equipped their headset with its own version of this sensor, which measures the electrical impulses as they travel around the brain and represents them in sounds and images. As you successfully create the right alpha, theta or gamma waves, depending on the state you’re seeking, you are “rewarded”, computer game-style, with gongs or glittering waterfalls displayed on an accompanying app. Their hope is that learning to generate the “right” type of brainwaves will enable you to manage your mind, bringing focus, calm or creativity depending on the state you’re seeking.
In addition to brainwaves the headset also measures your heart rate and teaches you how to manage it. And as if the possibility of seeing into your own brain wasn’t enough, the headset also fires little lights into your scalp to stimulate different areas. This is the part of the process that sounds most like science fiction and least like something I’d opt to have performed on myself. I have two worries: the first is that it’s the pseudoscientific equivalent of witchcraft; the second is that it will fry my already fragile and troubled mind.
Telfer calls the LED light stimulation “boosting” and says the light penetrates about five to six centimetres through your skull and into the brain itself. She tells me it’s safe and has been used for years in a research setting.
“It’s very gentle,” she reassures me. “It stimulates blood flow in the brain and there have been some studies showing improvements in natural cognitive decline with ageing.” A 2018 study entitled Photobiomodulation improves the frontal cognitive function of older adults found that light therapy “may enhance the frontal brain functions of older adults in a safe and cost-effective manner”.
The vision laid out on the Sens.ai website is of “a community of superconscious people thriving and doing good in the world”. My own short-term goal is to be able to remember the names of actors without googling them.
I’ve always found the prospect of becoming an improved human extraordinarily seductive. Along with millions of others, I hungrily consume the latest advice telling me to take cold showers, do breathwork, lift weights and eat seeds, and it always comes with an array of fresh science to back it up. Particularly appealing is the idea of neuroplasticity.
The mind’s ability to adapt and change is a constant process that happens whenever we learn something new. Neuroplasticity has been identified as physically affecting the size of our grey matter: for example, studies have found that London black cab drivers have a larger hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with memory — than normal. One theory is that this is a result of learning the many routes they need to qualify for their licence, although another is that people naturally blessed in this zone are more likely to pass the test. Behind brain training, though, is the idea that we can reshape our brains through practice.
I too want to join the community of superconscious people. The language is all about fulfilling potential, extending life, increasing focus and decreasing anxiety. Like an out-of-date Nokia, I’m impatient for my upgrade.
Advising the Sens.ai team is the medical doctor and executive coach Mark Atkinson. He says the headset is intended to be a counter-measure to the many aspects of modern life that break down our natural ability to find appropriate states when we need them.
He says if you train yourself to access alpha brainwaves, a particular rhythmic set of impulses associated with a state of calm alertness, then “it’s much easier to access equanimity. Most of the time we’re caught up in the stream of thinking, reacting to our situations. We’re not really in charge. Through prolonged alpha wave training, you can be so much more relaxed.”
This strikes me as the most appealing pitch for brain optimisation technology. If I stop to think about how my mind thrashes around most of the time, I picture a puppy chasing pigeons. Even as I write this, part of me wants to check my email, my Instagram, plan a sandwich and apologise for something unpleasant I said 30 years ago. Then there’s my tendency to worry about the most unlikely eventualities, and then worry because I’m worrying too much.
If I could train myself to be calm or crisply alert and focused when needed, then my life would be transformed. Also, there’s remembering the names of actors. By the time I’m feeling the helmet lowered onto my head, I’m genuinely intrigued.
But what does the academic establishment make of this kind of commercially available technology? Annabelle Singer, McCamish Foundation early career professor at Georgia Tech, is an expert in this area. She hasn’t seen Sens.ai but knows the research on which many products of this sort are based. She is sceptical about the kind of claims made by the brain-optimisation industry.
“There’s potential but to realise that potential we need to see rigorous studies using exactly the technology they’re proposing. I would want to see a trial study with a control group who got a sham stimulation.”
For every element, there are some research papers that show promise but the leap to enhanced brain function, she feels, is a little premature.
“There’s a lot of background scientific information that suggests there could be some advantages here, but the reality is, with your average healthy person who doesn’t have any impairment, it’s hard to improve function. I have reasons to doubt how well these could affect a normal person.”
Her doubts are echoed by Nilly Lavie, professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London. Speaking generally about this kind of technology without having looked specifically at this headset, she says: “I don’t think they’re ready for the market right now. Even if they were free I wouldn’t spend my time with them. More research is needed. I’m interested in the possibilities of the light stimulation, but I don’t think it’s ready for commercial use.”
The balance of doubt and intrigue swishing around my yet-to-be-optimised brain tilts slightly but, like all fearless explorers, I’m determined to push on into uncharted territory.
The headgear resembles a pair of posh headphones combined with a swimming cap — it’s fitted with nodules that rest gently on my middle-aged dusting of fine hairs. The screen in front of me shows the connection being made, there’s a brief, thrilling countdown, and soon my mind is being stimulated by little LED lights. I’m pretty sure I can feel some action going on up there — this is the boosting. The purpose is to wake me up and ready me for a taste of the brain training itself.
Once boosted, I open my eyes and a calm, female voice invites me to engage in a simple task. On the screen in my lap is a fantasy sci-fi landscape with various huge flowers dotted around it. It’s very 1960s Star Trek — a beautiful, unknown planet where an important philosophical lesson will be learnt. The pleasantly robotic voice invites me to focus on the piano notes produced as the flowers light up. The better my focus, the louder they will sound and the brighter the extraterrestrial plant life will shine.
The feeling is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The machine is rewarding me with light and sound when it senses I’m producing the correct brainwaves. So I’m playing a game in which I’m not sure what I’m doing but I know when I’m winning. Momentarily, I start to think about what to have for lunch (it’s about 12.45pm) and then I drift into planning a holiday in Italy. Immediately the picture in front of me starts to fade and the sounds become inaudible. Like my family, it knows when I’m not really paying attention.
Then I re-engage — I try to recreate the feeling that had the planet lighting up and making noises. The fantasy landscape returns and the sounds are louder than ever. The oddest part is that I still don’t know how I’m making it happen, it’s just a sense of being in the correct mind state.
This is the heart of the system and the hope is that if I did this every day, the mental muscle needed to adapt to a traffic jam, a big meeting, a personal rejection and (best of all) a film quiz could be developed. I do have the feeling that if I practised, it would help me focus and bat away distractions. As the world’s worst meditator (“can’t believe I’ve been sitting here for seven seconds doing nothing”), this enhanced version did at least keep me engaged (or disengaged, whichever is better).
I certainly feel better when I stand up to leave than I did when I entered. I had seen my brain struggling with distraction and then felt its ability to switch back to the task at hand. Calm yet alert, a state I’ve yearned for every working day of my life, felt within my grasp.
Doubt creeps up on me as I walk away from the session, though. Do I really need a £1,000 light-emitting brainwave-reading headset to think more clearly? Singer suggests some less costly approaches. “Try meditation, go for a walk, take some exercise — exercise is so good for your brain. Get a hobby, read a book. You have more control over your environment than you think; switch off your alerts.”
I remain very intrigued to see how the brain-enhancement sector progresses, whether 20 minutes spent honing your alpha waves will replace the first G&T on a Friday night, whether we will look back at our clunky pre-enhanced minds with amused nostalgia. Honestly, I hope it works out, if only to release us from the hell of “Whatsername . . . with the eyes . . . Dame someone . . .”