Mind Games

Inside the local billion-dollar industry that’s prepared to treat, supplement, exercise, hypnotize and rebuild your brain for a competitive edge.

Originally published as cover story for the January issue of San Francisco Magazine. Illustrations by Diego Patino.

I usually make an effort to avoid looking at my own blood.

Geoffrey Woo, the CEO of bio-enhancement startup HVMN, takes the opposite approach. “You get used to it,” he says as he pricks his finger and squeezes a fat drop onto a medical strip. A moment later, he reads out the results on his company’s Precision Xtra ketone and blood glucose monitor. His numbers are up today, something he notes daily as he susses out relationships between his inputs (diet, supplements, lifestyle) and outputs (energy, mood, biomarkers), all in an effort to “optimize the human system.”

Woo has the slim-cut, nerd-chic look of someone who’s good at to-do lists. He claims “three-meals-a-day is an artifact of the Industrial Revolution,” thinks intermittent fasting is “where meditation was five years ago,” and compares today’s biohackers to Homebrew Computer Club guys in the ’70s and ’80s. Where they tinkered with code, biohackers now tinker with blood in response to the Bay Area workforce’s desire for a competitive mental edge to help them problem-solve faster and innovate more daringly.

Consider the term “cosmetic neurology,” coined by University of Pennsylvania neurologist Anjan Chatterjee in a seminal 2004 paper on the future of body modification. “Brain hacking” is what your local news anchor might call it. But to Silicon Valley, it simply falls into the scope of everything else: an engineering problem. In the hyper-competitive, hyperconnected modern world, how can they upgrade their biological hardware and software to make their minds faster, less buggy and more powerful? All while making their genius appear effortless.

There’s a metaphor for it. I’ve heard it applied to Googlers, Stanford undergrads, the whole “brogrammer” set. They’re ducks. Gliding calmly on the surface of the pond, they look serene and poised — with that slight meditative smirk found in Palo Alto cafes. But beneath that easy glide, those little webbed feet paddle frantically.

San Franciscans are less concerned with weight-loss and more concerned with the belief that one should consume with a higher purpose.

It’s the “work smarter, not harder” mantra of the engineering class. The obsession with non-competitive yet aspirational hobbies like rock climbing. The entire vibe that is “athlesiure.” People are zesty with self-betterment, but with the cool surface-sheen of “wellness.” They don’t brag about the hustle here — it’s not New York — but they might regale you about their meditation retreat.

For decades, these smart, ambitious ducks have flocked here for its game-changing industries. The Bloomberg Brain Concentration Index — which tracks the migration of advanced-degree holders and job compensation in STEM fields — consistently places the cities of San Francisco and San Jose as top locations for “brain gain” in the world. So it’s worth asking what one of the most cerebral places on the planet, indeed the largest concentration of mind power in the world right now, is doing to make itself smarter. (And how a cottage industry supplementing it is now worth billions of dollars.) For starters, there’s a lot of drugs.

San Francisco has never shied away from mind-altering substances. But the substances on the rise here are nootropics (Greek for “mind bend”), which include any chemical that enhances cognitive function. Though there are no official numbers collected yet, nootropics are set to take a major slice of the $12 billion supplement industry. “I see it as a step up from coffee,” says product designer Lucy Dotson, who’s admittedly turned off by the whole “cool techie, quick-fix” vibe. She takes choline and aniracetam, and, despite her initial skepticism, says it makes her more alert and conversational at work.

Woo agrees. “If you just search on Alibaba, you literally find chemical factories that are pumping out this stuff.” After graduating from Stanford, his San Francisco apartment was filled with plastic bags from labs containing white powder: Alzheimer’s research drugs like racetams that live in “regulatory limbo,” as well as Noopept, the warning labels of which might be tough to read if you don’t know Russian. Potent mood-enhancers, these chemicals are said to improve memory and cognition. Woo recalls going on a walk after one chemical experiment and noticing some carnations looking “really, really yellow,” and likens this glimpse into heightened sharpness as something like “opening Pandora’s box.”

It’s no secret that smart drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, which began as a way to treat rambunctious children, have grown into a career-doping (and career-coping) industry for adults. Fivethirtyeight points out that between 2008 and 2012, the use of ADHD medications among Americans ages 4 to 64 increased by 35.5 percent. Among young adults age 26 to 34, their use had nearly doubled. Modafinil, another favorite stimulant here, traces its path from narcolepsy treatment to fighter-jet cockpits to the medicine cabinets of startup founders. Like the amphetamines used to treat ADHD, modafinil is a dopaminergic compound, meaning it manipulates the dopamine pathways that form your brain’s natural reward system. As such, nootropics forums abound with warning tales of addiction, anxiety and stimulant-induced psychosis.

There’s no biological free lunch, I guess. In the end, it may not prove worth much at all. Some recent studies have shown that amphetamines have little effect on cognitive enhancement in already high-performing individuals. The only score that consistently tested higher was participants’ own belief in heightened performance.

…people experience symptoms akin to when Harry Potter drank his magical luck potion, Felix Felicis. Things just feel “right.”

The world of nootropics is full of people drawing Byzantine connections within our chaotic biology: A activates B, which one study found correlates to C, and since various clinical trials show that C leads to D, we can surmise that A might increase E, F, maybe even G! Add to that the fact that (for better or worse), drugs originally intended for one purpose are often found to work on something much sexier and more profitable down the road. Viagra was originally tested to lower blood pressure. Ritalin’s namesake came from the inventor’s wife’s nickname, Rita, who used it to suppress appetite and improve her tennis game.

This “medicalization of everyday life,” as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz calls it, feeds off the greed of pharmaceutical companies, sure. But it also serves the striving, searching, self-made American. The 2011 Bradley Cooper movie Limitless finds eager fanboys in Wall Street and in Silicon Valley alike.

Whereas, five years ago, these guys were buying powders with bitcoin on the Dark Web, now the nootropic space is filled with startups sporting animated websites and slick packaging. One of the most common nootropic “stacks” has been caffeine mixed with L-theanine (the calming agent in green tea), which HVMN combines with ginseng into something they’ve aptly named Sprint. Likewise, the rest of HVMN’s lineup takes intimidating nootropics like choline and ashwagandha, and puts them into snappy-sounding solutions, such as Rise, Kado and Yawn. But perhaps the company’s most cutting-edge supplements are its ketone esters meant to mimic the metabolic benefits of ketosis. Ketosis usually occurs when you fast or abstain from carbs, and your body, without its usual fuel source of glucose, must get its energy by burning fat into ketones. This altered metabolic state is a biological survival mechanism, and it floods your brain with epinephrine and norepinephrine to bring your body into caveman-like efficiency. Or at least that’s the theory. Allegedly, this clears away mental malaise; jump-starts your attention; and initiates cell death in weak, malfunctioning, potentially cancerous cells. When I took HVMN’s ketone esters, however, all I got was a mild headache and an aftertaste that was strangely reminiscent of Band-Aids. (But, again, sample size of one.)

Compared to dieters in, say, L.A., San Franciscans are less concerned with weight loss and more concerned with the belief that one should consume with a higher purpose. To binge on anything too processed or sugar-forward has become as morally brutish as pouring diesel into your Hummer. People take strong, nearly spiritual stances on what they put in their bodies. And it doesn’t end with food or drugs.

Californians have a long history of taking bits of spiritual enlightenment here and there, then repackaging them for the Western palate. So it goes with modern meditation: It proposes an escape from the materialist rat race while simultaneously promising a form of “productive spirituality.” Steve Jobs was a known proponent of Zen meditation. Google has long offered courses on mindfulness, like the popular Search Inside Yourself. And Ray Dalio of the multibillion-dollar hedge fund Bridgewater Associates has credited meditation as the “single most important reason for whatever success I’ve had.”

By now, everyone has heard the long list of benefits: Meditation has been shown to calm anxiety, sharpen focus and show profound increases in the brain’s gray matter. “Controlling the monkey mind” is pushing itself into the mainstream as yoga has, and Silicon Valley startups are leading the charge. Apps like Calm ($250 million valuation) and Headspace (more than 37.5 million downloads) are fighting to become the Uber of mindfulness and have received funding from many of the same VCs who backed Facebook, Twitter and the like. It only makes sense that the same folks who supplied our digital addiction are now here to sell us our methadone. Personalized. Optimized. But now with a less garish color palette.

To some people, the provocative burst of creativity everyone craves, known as “inspiration,” is intimately connected with the word’s other definition and origin: “to breathe in.” Wim Hof, known as “The Iceman,” is one of those people. His eponymous breathing method involves periods of hyperventilation, breath-holding, submersion in an ice bath, and meditation. If it sounds similar to what was going on at some middle school sleepovers, that’s because it is. But in the adult world, “holotropic breathing” and “cold therapy” promise to reduce stress, increase mental clarity and boost creativity.

“The answer is not in the head; the answer is in the brain and body together,” Hof told a hyperventilating Joe Rogan on his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. Hof has appeared a couple of times with Rogan, which is itself a proving ground for all sorts of biohackers and psychotropic adventurers like Hof. Likewise, the breathing method also has founder/investor/gurus like Kevin Rose (of Digg and Google Ventures fame) and Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) buzzing about its ability to put you in a “deep state of calm and focus.”

In some ways, the spectrum of cognitive hacking is one that begins with self-improvement and ends with self-dissolution.

I tried it out every morning for a week and found the method’s woozy rush both unsettling and euphoric. The frantic breathing caused my face to tingle and limbs to twitch. Despite feeling like I might pass out during the hyperventilation, when it came time to hold my breath, I felt eerily comfortable holding it for more than three minutes. Afterward, when I hopped in the freezing cold shower, I shouted in a pitch I’m not proud of, sure, but then something weirder happened — I started laughing, like a freak. In my faint, altered state, the cold water became like a violent slap of the sublime. I still don’t know if I liked it or not, but I left the shower feeling like my head might float away from my shoulders. I sat down on my couch and meditated, a practice I’d never been very good at, but now dipped into it with ease. To focus on “normal” breathing, normal consciousness, felt like slipping into a warm old pair of slippers.

If there’s a place where mindfulness and nootropics meet, it’s in the ineffable world of psychedelics (“mind manifesting”). Modern proponents are still trying to wash away the dank aftertaste of the curdled hippie movement, and some more legitimate voices — like Berkeley’s Michael Pollan — are calling for a sort of psychedelic renaissance. His book “How to Change Your Mind” takes a fresh look at the mysterious compounds. It describes recent controlled studies from Johns Hopkins and NYU that show striking results in the use of psilocybin (the active component in magic mushrooms) to treat depression, addiction and end-of-life anxiety. The treatment also exhibited lasting improvement in the personality trait of “openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas and general broad-mindedness.”

Meanwhile, in less-than-controlled studies, some of the creatively inclined have taken to the practice of microdosing LSD or psilocybin at about 1/10 of an active dose. At such small amounts, users don’t trip out — colors don’t change and reality does not shift. Instead, people experience symptoms akin to when Harry Potter drank his magical luck potion, Felix Felicis. Things just feel “right.” People report thinking sharper and being happier, more at ease and more all-around fluid in their thoughts and actions. Of course, these are all self-reported effects, recorded by what psychedelic researcher Dr. James Fadiman calls “citizen scientists.” Fadiman intends to run more rigorous double-blind studies on microdosing in the future.

MRI scans of the psychedelically-induced brain have shown an increase in the amount of connectivity between neurons which might not ordinarily connect. They also exhibit a dampening of activity in something scientists call the Default Mode Network, which is thought to be the seat of the brain where your “self” sits and tells the rest of your consciousness the story of your past, present, and future. This explains why trippers report experiencing a return to a childlike state: pre-ego, before you figure out who you are, where you are, or what you want. It’s the world without the evolutionary filter of the self-desire complex, the deactivation of which — known terrifyingly as “ego death” — provides that ineffable state of oneness with the world that high-dose psychedelics, as well as long-term meditation, can activate.

Suppressing the “I” to strengthen the “I” sounds like some sort of Zen koan, but it also ties into what psychologists call the flow state, colloquially known as “being in the zone.” Named by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, the flow state has a few characteristics: The activity must lie in the sweet spot of difficulty and ease, such that you feel neither frustrated nor bored; it must hold a feeling of intrinsic reward; and it should induce a sense of focus that causes you to lose sense of time and do away with self-reflective consciousness. The point where awareness merges with action — where the ball seems to shoot itself and the violinist becomes a mere conduit for the notes being pulled out the air. We associate this with great artists and professionals. We associate it with a state of bliss that’s only earned after obsessive dedication, practice, repetition.

“The brain is an electrical organ,” he reasons, so why not speak to it in its own language? “Why don’t we use electrons?”

Leading cognitive scientists will tell you that this flow state, rather than being some mythical mode of transcendence, is a simple operation of the brain. Gray matter runs on an electrical, binary system — neurons switch on or off — so it stands to reason that the flow state might be activated like a piece of software on your internal circuit board. That’s the thinking behind transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) anyway. It involves sending low levels of electricity through electrodes attached to the scalp. The electrical current stimulates neurons into a state of hyperplasticity, meaning they are more susceptible to activate and make new connections with each other.

The first academic papers on tDCS were released in the early 2000s, and it didn’t take long before the military started looking for practical applications. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency famously began using it to train snipers to more quickly differentiate between threats and friendlies. Over 4,000 studies have been conducted since then, some of which have shown positive results, while many more have come up with zilch. Nonetheless, when you search tDCS on YouTube, you’ll find a host of nerdy white guys electrocuting their temples while they try to learn chess.

“If you stimulate a certain part of the brain…it buys you about an hour window where that part of the brain can learn faster,” says Dr. Daniel Chao, CEO of Halo Neuroscience. Its first product, Halo Sport, debuted in 2016. Priced at about $500, it looks like a pair of Beat headphones and wraps around the brain’s motor cortex along the top of the skull. This part of the brain controls physical movement — from basketball to weightlifting to playing the piano — and Halo Sport activates this region of neurons into a state of “hyperlearning,” which exhibits significant measurable improvements to how quickly both novices and experts can learn a physical skill.

“A sugar pill can produce a feeling, [but] we’re able to show a statistically significant difference between people who trained with [real] neural stimulation versus fake neuro-stimulation,” Chao tells me. Priding himself as a rigorous scientist dedicated to objective results, he threw some jabs at the scientific validity of nootropics. Chao thinks electricity is the future of how we interact with the brain and sees our current chemical obsession as severely lacking. “It’s too subjective,” for one, but also these molecules intended for a small part of the brain tend to “blast your whole body unnecessarily,” as he puts it. They spike a patient’s chemical soup in a way that’s blunt, often mysterious and rife with side effects. “The brain is an electrical organ,” he reasons, so why not speak to it “in its own language”? Why don’t we use electrons?

Some individuals are already considering cyborg possibilities. And if you think subjecting your brain to electricity seems crude, there’s a handful of neuro-engineers who might agree. Cocktail conversations abound with smartphone addiction and the coming AI apocalypse. And Elon Musk proposes a solution to both: Put the smartphone inside your brain. That is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Neuralink, one of Musk’s newest and boldest companies, is working on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that regard the problem of smartphones as one primarily of bandwidth.

Our smartphones are extensions of ourselves, connecting us to the world-brain and any of its human modules. Our friction with technology comes as we can’t input or output information at a high enough rate of transfer. You must go through the multistep process of receiving a notification, taking your phone out of your pocket, reading the notification, comprehending it, deciding whether to respond or not, banging club-like thumbs on the screen, correcting spelling errors and then hitting send. But in a world with competent BCIs, our brains’ merging would subsume all of those steps, and we’d effectively become telepathic. No need to Google anything anymore. The answer is in your head. No need to call anyone. Send your thoughts and prayers directly into their skull. No need to stare at a screen all day. The screen is behind your face.

In some ways, the spectrum of cognitive hacking is one that begins with self-improvement and ends with self-dissolution. Mindfulness seeks to improve the quality of consciousness by losing one’s self in the present moment. Psychedelic therapy removes the dictator of your ego from the control panel, leaving the rest of your mind’s players to scramble together a novel picture of reality. And in the most extreme cases of brain-hacking, we see engineers who want to quite literally disassemble your brain parts and meld them with the tech of the outside world.

In the book “Homo Deus,” Yuval Harari describes a future of humanity where the belief systems of liberal democracy and late capitalism give way to the new religions coming out of Silicon Valley: techno-humanism and dataism. Dataism lauds algorithms, freedom of information and the eventual singularity’s overtaking of human worth, while the former still holds up humans as the apex of creation — just in a different, more-improved format. Think Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Or Black Mirror.

This might be a cultural problem that we’re trying to solve, Woo tells me, when I ask about HVMN’s mission. “I sense a bifurcation,” he continues, his eyes earnest, searching. “There is a portion of our society where it’s okay to be complacent, like we’re happy, we’re satisfied. And there’s another section of our community that is very driven, very ambitious, very directed toward some sort of notion of improving themselves.”

Woo waxes poetic about how where once people looked to religion or politics for value, now “consumerism is the biggest driver of culture,” and how we should think hard about what kind of products we make can affect what kind of human values we prop up. When he saw his Stanford classmates working on better algorithms for more clicks, Woo thought, why not work on better humans?

Entrepreneurs are unafraid of looking foolish or being wrong. As Ferriss states: “Fifty percent of what we do is bullshit, but the other 50 percent just might work.” These are individuals who don’t ask for permission, and whose mantra, “move fast and break things,” has brought them great success — as messy as it may look in the process. They read the same ridiculous, pop-sci headlines that you do — like “Zap Your Brain Into a Flow State” — but then they actually go on the internet and buy a DIY transcranial stimulation machine.

Being their own guinea pigs, as it were, comes with pros and cons. Most of these experimenters lack in scientific rigidity and due diligence. Who’s to say what myriad inputs led to the tech-bro feeling like he had “improved mental clarity” on any given day? Placebo is a powerful thing. The mind truly creates the world around it. So is this whole brain-hacking movement partly an expression of San Francisco hubris? Yes. But it’s also a form of some purer distillation, something for which the region’s always been known. Curiosity, hope, and a self-propelled vision for what a better future might look like. For humans, not numbers.