The Story of a New Brain

by Ava Kofman

A new generation of brain scanners promise to upgrade your mind’s operating system and optimize your neural circuits. Results may vary.

In the beginning, my plan was perfect. I would meditate for five minutes in the morning. Each evening before bed, I would do the same. There was only one catch: instead of relying on my own feelings, a biofeedback device would study my brainwaves to tell me whether I was actually relaxed, focused, anxious, or asleep.

By placing just a few electrodes on my scalp to measure its electrical activity, I could use an electroencephalography (EEG) headset to monitor my mood. Whereas “quantified self” devices like the Fitbit or Apple Watch save your data for later, these headsets loop your brainwaves back to you in real time so that you can better control and regulate them.

Basic EEG technology has been around since the early twentieth century, but only recently has it become available in portable, affordable, and Bluetooth-ready packages. In the last five years, several start-ups—with hopeful names like Thync, Melon, Emotiv, and Muse—have tried to bring EEG devices from their clinical and countercultural circles into mainstream consumer markets.

I first learned about the headsets after watching the Muse’s creator give a TEDx talk called “Know thyself, with a brain scanner.” “Our feelings about how we’re feeling are notoriously unreliable,” she told the audience, as blue waves and fuzzy green patches of light flickered on a screen above her. These were her own brainwaves—offered, it seemed, as an objective correlative to the mind’s trickling subjectivity.

Their actual meaning was indecipherable, at least to me. But they supported a sales pitch that was undeniably attractive: in the comfort of our own homes, without psychotropic meds, psychoanalysis, or an invasive operation, we could bring to light what had previously been unconscious. That was, in any case, the dream.

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Ava Kofman is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She edits The New Inquiry and works on the editorial staff of Harper's Magazine.