Halo Sport Wants Us to Hack Our Brains

Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Christopher Sirk

Biohacking just got a big boost.

The Halo Sport, by Halo Neuroscience, is a pair of headphones with neuroplasticity enhancing features. In other words, it’s designed to prime your brain to make you learn better and faster.

It’s been endorsed by members of the US Olympic Ski Team, Invictus CrossFit, and Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey.

The implications of enhanced cognition touch pretty much everything you can think of, from athletics to studying to learning an instrument.

Should we be scared or thrilled, or both?

How Halo Sport works

Halo Sport is based on the idea of delivering transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) through something called ‘neuropriming’.

This is done with squishy soft foam ‘pods’ that compress against your head. These carry an electric charge that encourages neuroplasticity.

The premise is that the pods activate the motor cortex of your brain, priming it to fire quicker. With more cognitive awareness of your body’s processes, you force your brain to accept new muscular patterns and solidify those connections. The results are meant to be durable, allowing you to improve your performance in less time.

A dramatic promo video for Halo Sport suggests champions “are built, not born, set by set, rep by rep.” It’s not so much about building bigger and better muscles, but rather bringing out better performance through brain-muscle coordination and communication.

‘Muscle memory,’ or the way your brain instinctively controls muscles, is king when it comes to performance. It’s the reason why concert pianists with decades of experience will always outmatch newer students (prodigies like Glenn Gould being the rare exception to the rule).  

Brett Wingeier, neuroscientist, biomedical engineer, and Halo Sport co-founder notes that you can help neurons fire together with a small amount of transcranial stimulation, with the net result of delivering more precisely timed signals to your muscles through your primary motor cortex (the part of your brain that controls movement). So whether you're working on the fine motor skills associated with playing guitar, or just trying to do 100,000 push-ups, neuro-priming should offer training benefits.

In terms of user experience, the headphones are super simple to set up and start neurostimulating. You just download the iOS and Android app and pair it with your phone via Bluetooth. Then you make sure the pads make a good connection with your head.

The level of tES can be tuned to an intensity commensurate with your body’s tolerances. You can adjust the neuropriming strength from 0-10, with 10 being the strongest.

The device checks itself a thousand times a second and will shut itself off if it delivers overstimulation. To be precise, it will shut off after 30 minutes of use per day.

A standard Neuropriming session lasts 20 minutes. After that, there’s an afterglow of one hour, which counts down inside of the app. That means you will be able to enjoy the benefits of neurostimulation for up to 80 minutes a day.

With the original Halo Sport, there can be some issues with Bluetooth connectivity, which is a bit frustrating if you’re trying to make sure you gain the full benefit of the product and use it in a consistent way. If you want to listen to music while neuropriming, it’s possible with the headphones, however, for some perplexing reason you’ll need to opt out of Bluetooth and plug into your device with a cord instead (on the plus side, the audio quality is quite good).

The second iteration of the headphones, the Halo Sport 2, will feature integrated Bluetooth audio, as well as a host of general design improvements. It comes out June 2019 and can be pre-ordered for $299 USD ($100 less than its normal sticker price).

Should This Exist podcast interviews Halo Sport’s CEO and co-founder, Daniel Chao, who outlines some of the benefits and risks at play with this technology.

In the interview, Chao explains the acceptance gap in public opinion between conventional pharmaceutical medicine and neurostimulation.

He notes that we’re desensitized to pill-popping; we’ll take a brightly colored capsule for any number of conditions, like say high blood pressure, and enjoy the benefits without a second thought. Yet the history of medical intervention with regards to the brain is conspicuously less successful and less normalized, and even more so when there’s electricity involved.

For example, an epilepsy implant using a Responsive Neurostimulator System (RNS) offers benefits of reducing seizures by 38% per month, but a lot of people are freaked out about surgically implanting an electric device under their scalp.

The challenge is thus, according to Chao, to build a non-implanted neurostimulator that will begin to normalize the practice with the public. After educating the public about the technique’s efficacy and safety, a more high-strength, more effective implantable neurostimulator might someday become a reality.

On that note, Halo Sport has been certified as ‘completely safe’ by a medical whitepaper (which, it should be noted, was financed and authored internally by Halo).

Next level or neo-quackery: does tES actually work?

To further contextualize the Halo Sport, it’s helpful to look at the body of scientific knowledge the product sprung from.

First off, the term transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) is a generic one and includes transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS).

The European Chapter of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology has made Level B recommendations (probable benefits) for tES in treating chronic pain (fibromyalgia), depression, and addiction. They state, however, that other uses of tES need to be further explored, meaning the jury is still out on whether or not the technique can enhance general brain-muscle interaction and cognitive ability.

Meanwhile, the relationship between electrical current stimulation and the brain has a long, quite checkered, past.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) uses high-intensity currents, which pass through the brain to induce generalized seizures in patients. It was introduced in the 1930s, and remains in limited use today amidst some level of controversy. Mental Health America's article on ECT notes “it is not known how or why ECT works or what the electrically stimulated seizure does to the brain.”

This is a problem... as you might imagine.

Historically, ECT has unfortunately been applied as a ‘quick fix’ solution in lieu of long-term pharmaceutical interventions or ‘talking cures’. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, ECT became synonymous with medical barbarism (as mythologized in Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). These days it’s done under general anesthesia as a last resort.

On the even gloomier end of the spectrum, there’s that whole electric chair thing, what with the directing volts into people’s brains to make them stop living. Developed in 1890 by an American dentist by the name of Alfred P. Southwick, the wooden chair of death delivers a lethal current through electrodes attached to the head and legs. To put it understatedly, it accomplishes pretty much the exact opposite of the Halo Sport.

Returning to the land of the living, there’s also the history of electrical anesthesia, which (assisted by conventional pain-killing medication), was actually used to carry out hundreds of surgeries from the 1950s to the 1970s. It fell out of favor as a result of significant side effects in some patients, ranging in severity from physical pain to cardiac arrest.

These days, most of the work in the field of tES traces its roots back to a 1980 study by P.A. Merton and H.B. Merton. The study tested the application of high-intensity electrical stimulation, delivered via a pair of electrodes positioned over the primary motor cortex, for monitoring central motor pathways. Later experiments dialed down the dosage of electricity and determined that weaker currents might have benefits without side-effects.

Yet decades later, it’s been hard to measure the broader therapeutic benefits of tES. One recent study suggests that it’s “technically difficult to assess” the impact of weak electrical fields at “conventional intensities” for tES, as the skull absorbs a lot of energy with its strong, stubborn resistance, while the current produced, taking the path of least resistance, loses up to 75% of its energy as it “shunts across the scalp.”

Halo’s got competition    

You wouldn’t know it from all the Halo Sport marketing, but there’s actually a bunch of other consumer tES devices out there on the market. These include The Brain Driver and the Caputron ActivaDose II. They follow the same principle of twenty to thirty minutes of stimulation followed by lingering benefits.

The difference between these devices and the Halo is that the latter has a lot of marketing behind it. The Halo Sport headphones are also very aesthetically pleasing, rather than looking like Neil Young’s failed Pono audio player or a mobile interrogation kit.

Does all the Halo-hype mean that reported benefits are down to the placebo effect? The product is priced at a ‘premium’ level, and it’s got plenty of high-profile figures singing its praises, like four-time Olympic Gold Medallist sprinter Michael Johnson, who has implemented it in his boutique training organization, Michael Johnson Performance.

However, on the level of the individual user, once the afterglow of buying, unboxing, and trying out the Halo Sport has subsided, and you’ve shown them off to friends and social media, will you still want to use them?

It should here be noted that the company offers a money-back guarantee. So they do stand behind their product.

With the data on legit benefits currently incomplete and inconclusive, the biggest rationale for using the Halo Sport at this time is the possibility it might grant you an “edge.” For some, that’s enough reason to splash some cash on a pair.

The future of neuroplasticity

The idea of using tech to instantaneously learn skills has been explored in many a sci-fi work. We all remember the scene in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves is implanted with combat knowledge, then ever-so-flatly delivers the giggle-inducing line: “I know Kung Fu.”

But why can’t we just be happy with the way we are? Is it really necessary to clamp little nub pads on our head and shoot electricity into our brains so we can learn to do stuff faster?

It makes sense that we’d want to be able to do more with less time and effort. The long arc of human development since industrialization (a few very dark chapters notwithstanding) essentially points to more rational thinking, better training, better education, and better quality of life.

In the 21st century, where technology is radically changing societies and the nature of work, why not embrace biohacking for better cognition?

Take this unsexy, yet relevant quote, from everyone’s favorite Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck:

“The wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Fools learn from experience.”

Life is not that long, and the idea of mastering an instrument, learning to fly a plane, or getting professional in sports in a shorter and shorter time frame is enticing, to say the least. Most of us look back and wish we had been able to do any number of things, but couldn’t because we simply ‘didn’t have the time.’

In other words, why wouldn’t we want to use the accumulated knowledge of humanity, this time in the form of neuroscience, to save time on individual training and free up more space for other activities and better results?

If they catch on, the implications of more beefed up, über Halo Sport-style brain stimulating devices will be enormous.

They would allow companies to save an incredible amount of money on employee training. 42 million Americans left their jobs in 2018, and turnover is on the rise. This ever-growing issue is one that might concievably be tempered by tech's intervention.

Historically speaking, technologies have always been instrumentalized by corporations to serve economics, so there’s no reason to think that neurostimulation would not be seized upon as a way to save money and make money for business owners.

And it is here that some of the most questionable implications of the technology arise. Will this powerful tool for individual cognitive achievement have the ironic result of making us even less free, as we are constantly ordered to re-train our minds and motor skill palette to do the bidding of those in charge? After all, so far the productivity-enhancing tools of the tech revolution haven’t made us work less, but more.

On top of that, there's the limitations. There's no indication that neuropriming will ever be able to improve our emotional intelligence and other abstract skills like open mindedness and creativity, traits that aren't honed through focused training but rather diffuse, long-term experience. For sports, more big picture, strategic thinking like mindful leadership will remain the preserve of the meditative and cerebrally inclined. 

As well, the liabilities of becoming dependent on performance assisting technology are real. Halo CEO Daniel Chao and others have downplayed this, however, suggesting that its impact is too long-term to be truly addictive vis-à-vis drugs like cocaine (which offer a short-term spike offered by withdrawal symptoms).

In a utopian world, the ability to cognitively ‘pivot’ might allow people the freedom to choose their own adventure, learning skills in a way that would make them more employable, more satisfied with life, and potentially help address social divisions in society. If neurostimulation could ultimately allow adults to keep learning like kids, we might gain more freedom to shape our lives, or turn them around, and make pipe dreams into reality.

Meanwhile, new (and non-Halo funded) research shows that electricity can temporarily eliminate the effects of aging on working memory. Electric pulses can be used to achieve rhythmic synchronization of the prefrontal and temporal parts of the brain, effectively bringing an older person’s cognitive abilities back to par with that of a spunky young go-getter. Thus far, this result has only been achieved in a controlled, clinical setting but it’s an exciting development nonetheless.

In other words, Halo Sport is at the forefront of a trend that’s just getting started; we’ve got a long way to go into the ether. As neuroplasticity-enhancing technology moves further along, with more scientific literature over a longer time span to vouch for its tangible benefits, we’re likely to see more and more products in this vertical.

After all, we have growth hacking, and biohacking for the body, so why not brain hacking?