Silicon Valley’s Futuristic Mega-Zen Brain Machine
Biohacking, the hacking of biology, is a broad label that, in its most extreme form, can include DIY plant gene sequencing and the installation of magnets into your fingertips. But the term is also used to describe the habit of obsessively manipulating your diet and gobbling obscure supplements to reach superhuman health and intelligence. This more accessible side of biohacking is the deep Silicon Valley version of traditional West Coast health-and-wellness, a level of self care for those who don’t just want to escape cancer, but want to engineer every cell in their bodies—to ultimately become immortal.
Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and engineer for Google, is biohacking’s Saint John. He has whittled his daily supplement regimen down from 250 pills a day to 150 to keep himself hale enough to live to the era when he predicts nanorobots will live inside of us, expand our minds and program our DNA away from death. He also thinks that biohacking shouldn’t only be a game for the rich.
When asked by the Canadian magazine Macleans, about the affordability of brain tech, Kurzweil cited the examples of cell phones and HIV drugs. “It is only the rich that can afford [these technologies] at an early point, when they don’t work,” he said. “By the time they work a little bit, they’re affordable; by the time they work really well, they’re almost free.”
Until that point, though, biohacking remains a crude art of supplement ingestion and dietary alchemy. We all got an enticing taste of it this year when Bulletproof Coffee hit a critical mass of awareness on the Internet—an awareness at least to the point where many people could say, knowingly, “The butter-in-your-coffee thing? I heard about that.” Fast Company called it “the new power drink of Silicon Valley.” Men’s Journal claimed that the members of Third Eye Blind swear by it. Chicago said a café in the city would now be offering the drink for $9.
But simply putting butter in your coffee is watered-down version of the original Bulletproof recipe, which was created by the Bay Area-based Dave Asprey, founder of the self-improvement company Bulletproof Executive. To properly make Asprey’s drink, you have to freshly grind coffee beans specially roasted to remove stray myctotoxins (which supposedly fog your mind every time you drink regular coffee), then blend a few tablespoons of butter from grass-fed cows, then add a few tablespoons of medium-chain triglyceride oil, then watch your brain rocket into a state of ketogenic hyperfunctionality.
The Harvard Business Review has called Asprey “perhaps the most radical life automator.” He’s a software engineer, a personal coach, the claimant of being the first person to have sold something online in the 1990s (which was a T-shirt that said “Caffeine is my drug of choice”), and self-proclaimed biohacker—all of which together make him one of Silicon Valley’s most perfect chimeras, an everything-bagel of the tech world.
The coffee was Asprey’s first product after he left the world of software design, where he was VP of Cloud Security at Trend Micro, and became a professional guide to aspiring Ubermensches, launching a whole lineup of products with which to self-fortify and become a Bulletproof Executive: collagen protein shakes, the Bulletproof Sleep Induction Mat, an outlet that filters all the “dirty electricity” from your home that was quietly assaulting your body in ways you didn’t even realize. There’s Bulletproof chocolate, Bulletproof cacao tea, and of course, toxin-free Bulletproof coffee beans.
Bulletproof Coffee was a brief teaser to the biohacking-naïve public, an introduction to biohacking’s Dr. Oz. Through his coffee, Asprey became one of its chief popularizers and pundits, seemingly showing up whenever a journalist needs a quote about our culture’s metastasizing habit of obsessive self-improvement.
Before the coffee, Asprey’s last cameo in the press came just a couple of years ago, when media outlets scrambled to find an apologist for off-label use of Modafinil, the anti-narcoleptic drug which users had quickly discovered was a non-jittery version of Adderall. Modafinil sparked a new round of debates about the bioethics of cognitive enhancement, and Asprey was there as its defender, claiming that it had gotten him through his entire Wharton MBA program. He also said that he always kept the bottle on the desk as a form of disclosure—if his genius-pill were considered a kind of academic juicing, at least people knew he was doing it.
Asprey commands his reputation from a mighty claim: $300,000 invested on self-experimentation, one hundred pounds lost through little more than a high-fat diet, and an increase of twenty IQ points. I was curious where all that money had gone, so I asked him about it.
“Neurofeedback equipment, neurofeedback courses, smart drugs, lab tests, advanced meditation, stuff like that,” he told me over the phone on day before the start of the two-day Bulletproof Biohacking Conference in Pasadena, California. This year’s conference keynote was Steven Kotler, the Rise of Superman author and Wired contributor who appeared on Asprey’s Bulletproof Executive Radio podcast—which has also featured with Arianna Huffington and Tim Ferris, author of The Four-Hour Body and The Four-Hour Workweek and a biohacking partner in crime.
And what about the twenty IQ points, I asked? “IQ tests have a real problem; if you take the test three times, the score goes up,” he said. “I can’t say, I raised my IQ points at exactly this time in exactly this way.” This is a surprisingly equivocal response for how plainly the claim appears on his marketing material. In fact, Asprey offers on his website to connect you to a very specific high-speed ride to an IQ boost. He calls it 40 Years of Zen, and he reveals it on a page so obscured on his site that it’s difficult to find. “I don’t promote it heavily,” he told me.
The site describes 40 Years of Zen as an intensive neurofeedback program, a technology pioneered in the late 1960s that straps electrodes to your head and visualizes your brain wave patterns, so as to allow the user to learn how to control them. According to the site, neurofeedback treatment has been applied to seemingly every brain ailment, with varying success. Some claim that it rid their children of autism. Others say they’re no longer depressed. Still others testify to cognitive enhancement.
But 40 Years of Zen, according to the site’s description, is not your typical neurofeedback program; it involves equipment that is housed in an $11 million facility that can “only handle five brain upgrades at a time.” All it takes, apparently, is seven days and $15,000, and you’ll walk out twelve IQ points smarter, 50 percent more creative, and have the brain activity of a Zen master—a clear mind grasping the beautiful nothingness of existence, unencumbered by attachment. (Just in time to go crush your round of Series A fundraising.)
This all feels designed to be maximally cryptic. The 40 Years of Zen site is registered under a different domain name than the Bulletproof site, and Asprey doesn’t indicate exactly where the facility is, or who runs it. He only writes in the site description that, if you’re interested, he’ll give you a personal referral and a free half-hour of coaching (normally $500 an hour) to prepare you for the experience.
I asked him what exactly this thing was. “This is something I do with clients,” he said. “I don’t disclose all of the partners.” Then I told him I had already found out what it was. “It’s the Biocybernaut Institute,” I said.
I know this because, after last year’s Bulletproof Biohacking Conference, an attendee uploaded a video of Asprey speaking about his experience with brain-training at the Biocybernaut Institute, a neurofeedback company with three facilities in California, Arizona and Canada. The Institute’s website claims its program offers an average increase of twelve IQ points and a 50 percent increase in creativity.
Information about the Biocybernaut Institute online is elusive, and the phone number listed went straight to voicemail when I called. It has a very spare Twitter account, with a single tweet and just eleven followers (it follows five people, including Asprey). The Institute’s founder, Dr. James Hardt, published a study on the Biocybernaut Institute’s methods called “Alpha brain-wave neurofeedback training reduces psychopathology in a cohort of male and female Canadian aboriginals.” Hardt is pictured on the website, smiling under a head of guru curls. It all looks like just the kind of aged cultural artifact that becomes Tim and Eric source material.
A Biocybernaut Institute training video, uploaded to YouTube in 2009, is overwhelmingly anachronistic, but it’s difficult to pinpoint which precise decade it actually belongs to—philosophically, it’s from the 70s, but it’s also got an 80s corporate promo vibe, featuring 90s computer monitors, used by people wearing 2000s fashion. The video is fuzzy, the audio goes in and out, and the editing is terrible. Have a look: “Enjoy your flight, Biocybernaut.”
The Institute did briefly enter the mainstream, however, when Dr. Sanjay Gupta visited the Institute and interviewed Hardt for a segment on Larry King Live a few years back:
I asked Asprey about the Biocybernaut Institute. “I would not want to put that out there,” Asprey told me. “Certainly it’s hard not hard to figure out if you’re digging for it. But it’s hard to stand out there and say, ‘This stuff increases your performance the way it does.’ It’s not like playing a game,” he added. “People throw up. People cry. They shake uncontrollably. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
The conclusion that the Biocybernaut Institute training isn’t a scam or a cult of any kind is the more interesting one, so let’s briefly deal with the tempting idea that it is. That would mean that Bulletproof Coffee isn’t just a gateway drug to biohacking; instead, it’s part of an enormous public front for an off-brand version of Scientology in a Canadian mind-reengineering center that takes your money and makes you throw up. It would mean that Dave Kalstein, a writer and producer of NCIS: Los Angeles, who Asprey told me was speaking at the conference about his experience in the program, is one of many agents in a Mars Attacks!-style plan to control the minds of the powerful and manipulate regular, non-biocyber humans. (Asprey wouldn’t tell me the names of any other clients who had completed the program, but he claims to have put many people through it.)
Or, it could be that this is the real deal—that the Institute offers a scientific method that will quasi-permanently change your brainwaves, and in the process make you a lot smarter, a lot healthier, and generally superior to everyone who hasn’t gone through the training.
So, if this neurofeedback method really does deliver on its promises, why wouldn’t everyone do it? Well, not everyone knows about it. Oh, and it costs $15,000. On the 40 Years of Zen website, Asprey writes: “When I first learned of this program, I was not at a financial high point in my life. I actually charged it to my Discover card and paid it off over the next year. It is the most important $15,000 I have ever spent.” Coffee that costs $9 a cup is one thing; this is quite another.
The disparity between the availability of healthcare for the rich and for the poor is one of the more disturbing aspects of modern income inequality. In previous centuries, the rich lived because they could buy food, and the poor died because they couldn’t. The divergence of health resources today, and in the future that Kurzweil’s nano-prophecy describes, is one in which the poor in advanced nations plod through life with diabetes and off-brand medications while the most wealthy can indulge in technologically awe-inspiring campaigns of self-actualization, becoming, literally, more superior beings. Kurzweil, after all, considers himself a transhumanist.
I asked Asprey about the neurofeedback treatment’s $15,000 price tag. “I want this to be broadly accessible,” he said. 40 Years of Zen, he said, is “Ferrari-level.” For the less moneyed masses, he offers the NeurOptimal kit, a self-administered neurofeedback program. He says it’s the next best thing, and it’ll run you just $5,500.