Thync, a mood-managing wearable tech
It begins with a jolt of electricity to the forehead. At first I can’t even tell if it’s working. Then I feel a slight tingling sensation, followed by a gentle throbbing. A strange, deepening pressure starts to exert itself above my right temple. It feels like a head massage you might get at the hairdresser, if administered by a machine and on one side of the head. The vibrations undulate over a 10- or 20-minute duration, accompanied by a persistent, tinnitus-style buzzing. The point is to alter your mood – to induce a state of calm or a measured dose of energy.
These are the aims of the neurosignalling wearable device Thync, released in the United States earlier this year. Its tagline: “Shift your state of mind in minutes.” A slick promotional video shows users adorned with the Thync in various states of activity: studying, formulating a winning football match strategy, lying awake in bed, on public transport, preparing for a radio interview. These people live in inner-city suburbs, play video games, ride bikes, and go to Dan the Automator gigs. Their lives are not only creatively fulfilling and well rounded, but productive. They are most likely members of what Swedish economist Staffan B. Linder identified in 1970 as the “harried leisure class”: those in the working population with more money to spend and a greater capacity to consume goods, but no time with which to enjoy them. Today, many of us compulsively multitask with gadgets designed to maximise our leisure time. Yet a happy equilibrium can be hard to sustain. It’s hard to feel energised by life sometimes, but it’s just as hard to relax.
In a world where technological progress and market realities have conspired to erode work–life balance, time remains elusive and economically scarce. Technology was initially envisaged as a corrective for this dilemma. In his 1931 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, economist and noted hedonist John Maynard Keynes saw technological advancement as a liberating force. He predicted that by 2028, our vast amassment of wealth and technological strides would result in a 15-hour working week. But Keynes got it wrong. An increase of wealth has, on aggregate, not led to lives of leisure. Sure, we are richer, but we are also working longer hours. We are enslaved and sometimes alienated by the devices that were supposed to free us from endless toil.
Thync recognises this phenomenon and capitulates to it. To this contemporary problem it proposes a solution: emotional management. “When you have the power to change the way you feel, it changes everything,” the Thync website says, along with another more prosaic motto: “How good feels.” So far it has received largely uncritical reviews in the tech press. PBS radio reporter Cristina Quinn wore the device while interviewing the company’s “chief of vibes” and said of the experience: “I find myself having a hard time holding a conversation. I’ve never conducted an interview feeling this groovy. I feel like I am under the influence of groovy.” Others claim the stimulatory effects are more potent than a strong cup of coffee, while those who used the device to achieve a state of zen claimed it felt as if they’d smoked a joint.
A release date for Thync has not been scheduled for Australia, and the company’s website doesn’t yet ship outside the US, so I ordered one off Amazon through a mail-forwarding service. Ten days later, my Thync arrived, ensconced in a matryoshka-like configuration of sleek black packaging. It also came with a glass jar containing a gram of “certified organic” Indian saffron. This seemed an odd inclusion until I read its label, which claimed the spice could be used to elevate moods and as an aphrodisiac.
Thync emits a low-voltage electrical current that is said to stimulate the nerves on your face – a process known as transcutaneous electrical neuromodulation – and supposedly helps you “unwind” or feel “alert”. Its waves of electrical pulses (referred to by the company as “Vibes”) can be dialled up or down (otherwise known as “tuning your Vibe”) through an iPhone app that syncs up to the device via Bluetooth. It sounds like DIY electroconvulsive therapy for early adopters. Thync is contoured to fit the triangle of skin between your eyebrow, right temple and hairline, and is affixed to the forehead with a disposable adhesive strip that runs from your temple to the back of your ear. It recalls the headsets worn in call centres, or the mood-altering organ in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Thync looks elegant in its box but less so on human flesh – it feels like a bodily incursion. Wearing it underscored for me the friction between the concept of wearable tech and its realisation.
I first tried Thync after a 13-hour working day. I opted for the “guided unwind”, which lasted 10 minutes and involved sporadic reassurances from a natural-sounding male voice that the tingly sensations were, in fact, normal. When the vibrations ceased I felt soothed, but I wondered if that was a result of the device or the glass of wine I’d consumed earlier. The next day I decided to test whether the device could elevate my energy levels to finish an article I was working on. I imposed some “controls” on my experiment: I abstained from alcohol and large meals; I made sure my surroundings were free of distracting stimuli (TV, music, conversation). I sat in front of my laptop in silence, selected the “Go (Intense)” setting and waited. The vibes were stronger, almost as if they were burrowing into my temple. I closed my eyes and imagined if it was possible to derive pleasure from productivity. I cautiously dialled up the intensity – Thync recommends upping it to the highest level you can bear for maximum effect. I took a few selfies of my cyborg self and all the shots were unflattering – I looked bemused and disoriented. After 20 minutes of electrical pulses I couldn’t be sure of how I felt. I didn’t feel worse, but I was a bit restless for about 45 minutes after the vibrations stopped.
While media coverage of Thync has been largely affirming, there’s been more scepticism from experts, who believe the science behind Thync is flimsy. Peter Enticott, associate professor of neuroscience at Deakin University, said the product’s release seemed to be “part of a worrying trend where brain stimulation devices are being commercialised without the appropriate evidence base”. He added: “To go to market following a trial with only 10 people per group is ridiculous.” Still, this hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for the product, which is considered a “lifestyle device” under US health law and therefore exempt from Food and Drug Administration approval.
I wonder what lifestyle one aspires to when wearing the Thync module. On the one hand, it’s not unlike having a glass of wine or a coffee to shift one’s mental state. But it also encourages a kind of denial. Technology didn’t create the human desires for self-improvement or enhanced productivity, but it has realised them in ways that feel larger than life. In Thync’s promotional video, life is presented as a series of choices and incentives, and the individual’s mood is the only impediment to success, to having it all. It’s a necessary con, because a portrait of life as it is – sometimes agonistic, alienating, shrouded by the threat of defeat – is hardly appealing. Neither is the idea that the roots of one’s malaise could be generated by a force that is unwieldy and beyond the control of the individual. That the regulation of emotions would come to resemble an on-demand service such as Netflix seems an unsettling but logically extreme conclusion. Perhaps it’s the anaesthetic to reality that we never knew we needed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2015 as "Thync piece". Subscribe here.