Biohacking: Brain or Body?

“Biohacking” is an evolving trend in which people change their food and lifestyle habits to take advantage of biological mechanisms and to improve wellbeing. Dubbed “do-it-yourself” biology, biohacking helps “‘gain control of systems in your body that you would never have access to”.

Some of the most common bio hacks to enter the mainstream are those that one can do at home, such as intermittent fasting and non-traditional, polyphasic sleep cycles. The former involves fasting for approximately 16 hours of the day, and the latter involves breaking sleep cycles into chunks (taking 2-4 naps) instead of sleeping through the night. These hacks have been popularized by everyone from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to lifestyle bloggers to beauty magazines. The popularity of  biohacking originates from its accessibility (it requires little to no equipment and assistance) and its affordability (unlike juice cleanses and workouts,  it is not a large monetary investment).

As of 2017, there were “nearly 30,000 enthusiasts, followers, biohackers and citizen scientists working together to share their innovative life science solutions” in the U.S. Regardless of whether or not biohacking lives up to its claims, its popularity reflects the growing cultural push toward optimizing productivity and efficiency. This is particularly evident in Silicon Valley, where CEOs such as Phil Libin (former CEO of Evernote) are extremely vocal promoters of the biohacking movement. Libin described fasting as “one of the top two or three most important things I’ve done in my life” because it improved his mood, focus, and energy. Unlike many other trends amongst celebrities, biohacking is an accessible and affordable way to increase physical and emotional well-being. Athletes such as Tom Brady are known for  biohacks such as eliminating  foods like white sugar, white flour, MSG, caffeine, fungus, dairy, and even strawberries from their diets. Although the vast majority of people do not need to perform athletically at a professional level, there is a certain level of appeal and validation given to biohacking when advocated for by celebrities and successful businesspeople. Unlike the heavy duty training regimens that athletes engage in, biohacking is an accessible and easy ‘fix’ for people of all abilities.

"Regardless of whether or whether not biohacking lives up to its claims, its popularity reflects the growing cultural push towards optimizing productivity and efficiency. "

These biohacks themselves are not new: For example, the ancient Greeks fasted, Gandhi protested with hunger strikes, and many major religions employ fasting today. However, the way that biohacks have been promoted has been altered by technology and the media landscape. Instead of being a political or religious statement, scientific principles and research contribute to the rise of modern biohacking. It isn’t being promoted through religious texts or protests, but rather through Instagram, magazines, and mainstage TED Talks. The language describing biohacks frames them as a cure-all that stabilizes energy levels, helps with weight-loss, boosts the immune system, and slows aging.  On the other hand, those against biohacking also discuss them in scientific terms, incorporating research to show that biohacking can lead to heart failure due to lack of essential minerals, as well as an increased risk of kidney damage. Opponents of the biohacking movement have called it a  “siren song”: biohacking’s appeal is due to a simplified way of looking at complex biological mechanisms. The human body is more complex than many of these solutions lead their audiences to believe: intermittent fasting may help to boost energy levels, but it could do so at the expense of other essential mechanisms.

Although biohacking, in its most popular form, is still limited to small-scale individual activities that shift biology, firms are investing in R&D to expand biohacking through new technologies. Unlike small-scale biohacking, these firms seek to profit off of large-scale changes to diet and lifestyle, whether it is injecting people with microbes or altering nutrition through macronutrient counters. For example, the brain simulator Thync “applies an electric current to the head to deliver calming vibes. Gadgets like Thync are means of taking biohacks such as meditation to the next step through technological assistance. Similar meditation-oriented technologies such as Muse, Harmony, and Spire all seek to alter brain or breathing patterns to help calm the user. They are also effective in gaining investors and crowdfunding in Silicon Valley from people interested in biohacking themselves. These technologically-based biohacks are growing in popularity, but their increased cost and limited availability thus far prevents them from having the same mass appeal as lifestyle-centric ones.

The future of biohacking, like many developing wellness technologies, is hard to predict given rapid advances in the industry. Yet, as the movement continues to grow in size and scope, it is crucial to be aware of the many unintended consequences that altering one’s biological functions can have: simple solutions often fail to account for the nonlinear and complex biochemical processes in the human body.

Photo: “Medicine Cabinet

About the Author

Kavya Nayak '22 is a Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Kavya can be reached at kavya_nayak@brown.edu

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