Consciousness Hacking: Plugging In to Plug Out
Does enlightenment or spiritual awakening sound like something you’d like to experience? Or perhaps you’d just like to optimise your mental performance, improve your memory and experience better focus? Well, forget rigorous meditation, technology might be the 21st century’s answer to mental liberation.
Ever since we first became aware of the possibility of elevated states of consciousness, humans have been sitting in silence, mentally tip-toeing the path to enlightenment. Nothing much has changed in that respect, it’s just now we’re sitting quietly in the designated meditation room inside our co-working space plugged into a mindfulness app.
Humans have commonly used meditation, chanting, sensory deprivation and psychedelic substances to enhance, or simply change, their conscious reality and mental wellbeing. Now we’re looking for modern techniques to achieve the same outcomes. Apps like Headspace or SmilingMind are some of the very first iterations of a new trend known as ‘consciousness hacking’, which, as the name suggests, refers to the altering of your conscious experience.
If ever there was a blatant need for techniques and practices to assist our mental wellbeing and ‘hack’ our minds, it’s now. In 2014, the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine found that there was a significant and linear association between depression and social media use, which from 2017–18 grew, globally, by 13 percent. Moreover, in that exact study, where 1,787 adults were sampled, over one quarter of all respondents were classified as having ‘high’ indicators of depression.
Closer to home, in Australia, suicide is now the leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 44. Technology, clearly, has a lot to answer for. However, what if technology, the very thing that seems to have poisoned modernity, was actually the antidote to its own afflictions? Well, a bunch of tech gurus in Silicon Valley think it is, and according to them they’ve found the remedy we’ve all been looking for.
Piggy-backing off a number of neurobiological studies concerning the mapping of brainwaves, scientists have, with the help of new technology, related particular brain patterns to states like deep relaxation, aggression or depression. The theory being that if you can map certain conscious experiences, like deep relaxation, to certain brain patterns then, conversely, you might just be able to manipulate the brain to achieve specific cognitive states. This is exactly what a group of people in Silicon Valley have innovated; wearable headsets that use electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to track brain function and administer minute electric shocks to gently nudge your mind in certain directions – a new wave of consciousness hacking technology that’s quite a leap from less invasive meditation apps.
At the heart of it all is a man called Mikey Siegel. Siegel is a high performing MIT and NASA trained roboticist who spent 10 months at the health-tech company, Theranos. Theranos, and its budding 19-year-old founder Elizabeth Holmes, promised to revolutionise blood testing and the hype resulted in the company raising over US$700 million in private investment, with Forbes valuing the business at a staggering US$9 billion in 2013. The company is remembered now, however, for being publicly scrutinised by the Wall Street Journal in 2015 about whether their technology actually worked; Holmes was charged with fraud in March 2018 and is currently facing 20-years imprisonment for conspiracy and wire fraud. Siegel was the multi-disciplinary project lead at Theranos and reported directly to Holmes.
While working at Theranos, Siegel came to a realisation as he neared the end of a 10-day meditation retreat in California; he felt that the part of his brain that was constantly judging suddenly turned off. “It felt like freedom… in that instant, everything I believed about human potential shifted,” is how Siegel describes his epiphany in Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal’s best-selling book 'Stealing Fire', which chronicles the recent boom in disruptive consciousness hacking methods. But, when Siegel returned home to his work at Theranos, he was again surrounded by modern, distracting technology. No matter how much he devoted himself to meditation he was back to square one.
Siegel came to the conclusion that ancient meditation techniques were simply tools to induce and evoke very specific brain patterns. Drawing upon his knowledge of robotics and their relationship with humans, he believed that the evolution of meditation and mindfulness could, and should, incorporate emerging technology. He recognised that, when it came to our mental states, there was untapped human potential and that technology could serve a deeper purpose. The way he saw it, rather than distraction and repression, technology could help us be more connected, healed and compassionate.
Siegel quit his job at Theranos in 2011 and in 2013, after a stint researching how technology influences human wellbeing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, set out with a bold task of hacking consciousness. He began hosting meet-ups to discuss and trial new technology like EEG headsets. The name that he called his movement was – yep, you guessed it – consciousness hacking. Siegel’s consciousness hacking movement started in Santa Cruz with only 10 people but now has over 10,000 members and, according to their website, is actively creating a global community committed to “exploring, designing and using technologies which facilitate individual and collective awakening”.
The consciousness hacking movement has even made it to Melbourne. Rane Bowen is a passionate member of the co-hack tribe and has been hosting meet-ups in Northcote since the end of 2016. “For me the consciousness hacking movement is as much about people coming together to discuss things as it is about the technology,” said Bowen who is currently in the process of renovating his yoga and meditation studio, where he hopes to start hosting meet-ups on a monthly basis. “There are a lot of young people that want to make the world a better place,” says Bowen and for him consciousness hacking is a means to that end. Ultimately, though, when asked about the intentions of people like Siegel, he admits, “It’s hard to know because we live in a world full of marketing spin, but I guess we just have to trust that his intentions are pure.”
But considering the invasive cutting-edge technology that the co-hack movement are advocating for, trust may not be enough.
The movement is buoyed by a number of alarming technological innovations. One such device is tDCS (Transcranial Direct-Current Simulation), a form of EEG where certain areas of the skull, and thus the brain, are given measured bursts of electricity. The Brain Stimulator is just one of the companies, based in the US, that is selling tDCS kits to anyone with a skull and a power socket. Simply attach the electrodes to certain parts of your head, sit back, and wait for your dose of mental clarity. Their website outlines a number of studies that suggest tDCS improves many facets of cognitive performance, such as memory, attention, problem solving and coordination. Or, as it’s simply explained in bolded text on their landing page “tDCS allows you to unlock your brain’s true potential!” The technology is still very much in its infancy, and even Siegel notes that most of the time you are left feeling like “you’ve drunk a glass of wine”. He is firm in his vision, however, and if anyone understands the power of emerging technology in this context and where it could be applied, he probably does. “Consciousness-hacking technology is going to become as dynamic, available, and ubiquitous as cell phones.”
Siegel has also founded a company called BioFluent, which produces a number of consciousness hacking gadgets. Originally working with tracking the heartbeat, Siegel is now using EEG headsets to track the brain as well. NOME is a meditation device, which looks like a small TV, designed by Siegel to be the “spiritual Swiss army knife” that tracks when your mind wanders and instantly provides audio–visual cues to adjust you back to your ‘centre’. What’s more, BioFluent’s other product, HeartSync, links up groups of 24 people via personal EEG headsets that are all plugged into a central computer. The central computer tracks everyone’s brain patterns and gives audio cues to guide the participants so they can synchronise their collective heartbeat and breathing.
“My proposition to you is that these two things, business and technology, are the nutrients needed for the seed of self-awareness growing around the world.”
Josh Whiton, a central figure in the co-hack community and one of Siegel’s close associates, explains the significance. “Say you decided to have a board meeting and you hook everyone up to a headband and a heart-rate sensor to get into a state of coherence… what kind of meeting would we have after that?” The addition of co-hack technology in a boardroom could be a revolutionary way to bring empathy into corporate culture and business decision-making. Or, it is just another way in which the capitalist system can boost efficiency and performance of overworked and exploited employees? This corporate application of consciousness hacking technology presents some serious implications.
One of Siegel’s close friends Jamie Wheal (the same Jamie Wheal who co-authored the aforementioned book, Stealing Fire), is a co-founder of a co-hack offshoot company called Flow Genome Project (FGP). FGP will, for a fee, help you reach your peak performance state, which they refer to as “flow”. Wheal describes the industry behind consciousness hacking as a “four-trillion-dollar opportunity for the entrepreneurial-minded”. While this figure may seem utterly hyperbolic, it’s clear that companies stand to make a lot of money from consciousness hacking products. This opens up an important question: is business the modern technological vehicle for mass awakening and mental clarity?
Joe Hudson, the founder of the VC company called One Earth Capital, is one of the first VC’s Siegel pitched consciousness hacking to. Hudson spoke at one of the co-hack meet-ups in San Francisco in 2015. He referred to two new movements that he’s witnessing in society. “One of those movements is business coming in to connection with consciousness development and then the second one is technology coming into connection with consciousness development.”
“My proposition to you,” he continued, “is that these two things, business and technology, are the nutrients needed for the seed of self-awareness growing around the world.”
If we ignored the adverse effects of technology on humanity and capitalism’s role in mass inequality, climate change and global recessions, Hudson’s statement might just be the winning combination we’ve all been waiting for. Perhaps in the not too distant future we can remain fundamentally business-centric, plug in to the evolving world of consciousness hacking products and reach collective states of peace that have never before been observed.
“I’m going to say something provocative here for a second,” Hudson taunted at the meet-up. “If Buddha knew what he was doing we would all be awake right now.” Hudson’s libel implicates some amusing but nevertheless sincere questions.
Was the only thing missing from Buddha’s repertoire a solid corporate structure and some VC trust fund money? If Buddha had begun his enlightened teachings by first creating Buddhism Pty Ltd, would we all now be reveling in spiritual ecstasy? Seeing as though consciousness hacking is now a lucrative business opportunity, is it really the vessel for mass human flourishing?
There is no doubt that technology, and business for that matter, can be a positive force for good but even from a logical standpoint, plugging into these emerging technologies in order to ‘plug out’ is inherently contradictory and therefore necessitates some serious discussion and analysis. Surely it’s not far-fetched to assume that we could become totally lost in the consciousness hacking matrix. The fact that people can make millions from selling ‘it’ to you is also a pretty obvious red flag and opens the door for it to become completely dogmatic.
Regardless, people like Mikey Siegel and his troupe of consciousness hackers will continue to push the envelope. Some may argue that the envelope has already been stamped.
The question is, where are they sending it to?