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John Fawkes

Where science geeks become fitness freaks

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I measured my brain waves and task performance on caffeine- here’s what I found

For the past six weeks I’ve been conducting an experiment on myself.  I’ve been taking different levels of caffeine every day, with intent of figuring out exactly how much I should take for optimal mental and physical performance. 

I was a caffeine addict for most of my life (you can read about one strategy I used to overcome that here), so it’s only recently that I’ve started to view it as a performance enhancer, rather than a problem to get rid of.  However, caffeine has some very well-established physical and mental benefits that I’ve been eager to reap for myself.  The results so far have been promising. 

I used several methods to test caffeine’s effect on me.  First off, I used Versus to measure caffeine’s effect on my brain waves and how it helps or harms my ability to enter a calm and focused mental state.  Following off of that, I measured my productivity at knowledge work tasks on varying levels of caffeine.

I also tested the physical effects of caffeine, in two different ways: by playing sports (mainly dodgeball) and by lifting weights in the gym. 

Did I find my ideal caffeine dosage?  Actually, I found several ideal dosages.  Before I go into my results, let’s start with the usual disclaimer around self-experiments: I only ran this test on myself, and so the results can’t be clearly generalized from me to you.  Your ideal dosage may be higher or lower.  I am a 30 year old man weighing in at about 152 pounds right now, so bear that in mind as you read this. 

Part 1: Effects of caffeine on my brain waves

Caffeine has been reported to increase the strength and frequency of beta brain waves, which are associated with high alertness and fast thinking.  Versus allows me to test that for myself, as it includes a feature that displays my levels of alpha, beta and theta waves in real-time.  Unfortunately, at present Versus doesn’t add up the different levels of each brain wave and show me the data; it just shows me a rolling window of about ten seconds, so I have to eyeball the data.

Since this is a fairly inaccurate method, I spent weeks repeating this experiment, consuming some caffeine, waiting, measuring my brain waves, consuming more caffeine, waiting for it to kick in, measuring my brain waves, and so on.  And while I can’t quantify my findings here, it did indeed seem that caffeine increased the level of beta waves.  The effect only became clear when I went over 200 mg.  Effects on alpha and theta waves were unclear- I occasionally thought I saw one or the other going up or down, but I eventually concluded that this was just noise. 

In addition to measuring raw brain waves, I looked at my performance in the Versus brain-training games.  I’m on the stress training program, so my goal right now is to boost my alpha waves while limiting my beta and theta waves.  You would think this would mean caffeine impairs my performance, right?

Not entirely.  Instead what I found was that my performance was ideal when I had consumed 75-150 mg of caffeine.  More caffeine produced the expected drop, but less caffeine also lead to sub-optimal performance.  Worth noting: I ran most of these tests in the late morning. 

Part 2: Effects of caffeine on mental tasks and productivity

Aside from writing this blog, I work from home, self-employed, as a marketing consultant.  It’s easy to get distracted in that situation since nothing stops me from   Using a point system I’ve been experimenting with to gamify my productivity, I measured the effect of caffeine on my work performance.

The results were pretty similar to what I found with Versus- I was most able to get work done at doses between 75 and 150 mg.  If I didn’t have at least 75, particularly in the mornings, I’d usually have low energy, making it harder to motivate myself to work or just causing me to work really slowly. 

At the other end, my productivity started to drop off somewhere between 150 and 200 mg of caffeine, as higher doses gave to so much energy it became hard to focus.  At that range and above, I become increasingly prone to distraction, as well as experience a growing urge to get up and engage in physical activity. 

Part 3: Effects of caffeine on sports and exercise performance

Caffeine has well-documented benefit to physical performance, with 200 mg being a typical dose for supporting fat loss, whereas most studies suggest a much higher dosage for enhancing strength and athletic performance.  I didn’t test caffeine for fat loss, but I did test it for strength and sports. 

First off, weight-lifting.  Studies typically recommend 500 mg of caffeine to enhance strength, and pre-workout supplements will typically provide either around that much, or more commonly a lower dose mixed with other stimulants.  I found 500 mg to be way too high- my heart raced, I felt dizzy, my body temperature skyrocketed, and I just wanted to lie down and let it pass. 

However, I did find that lower doses of caffeine give me a noticeable boost in the gym.  I start to feel an effect around 200 mg- increased energy, strength, muscular endurance, and a desire to engage in physical activity.  The effect gets stronger as I raise the dosage, but higher dosages also make me feel aggressive and irritable.  400 mg seems to be my limit before I get dizzy and kind of sick, with 300 mg being my sweet spot for weightlifting.   

I also tested caffeine while playing sports, mainly dodgeball, which I play most Tuesday nights.  The ideal dosage for that ended up being somewhere between the ideal dosage for weight training and work, which makes sense since dodgeball is both a mental and physical task.  I got my best results around 150-250 mg.  Higher doses started to be counterproductive as they made it harder to think straight- my situational awareness would suffer and I’d get hit by balls I didn’t see coming.  Over 300 mg, I would feel hot, my heart would race, and my stamina would start to suffer as well. 

The other problem: high doses of caffeine would impair my sleep, because I play dodgeball later at night- nine to eleven PM.  So I’ve backed off from higher doses and started playing on only a hundred or so milligrams to keep myself sleeping well. 

So how much should you take?

Quick recap of my results:

Mental tasks: 75-150 mg

Sports: 150-250 mg

Weight training: 250-400 mg

And again, I’m a 30 year old male, 152 pounds, around 13% body fat.  The effects of caffeine definitely scale off of body weight, probably more so for physical than mental effects. 

As guidelines to help you find your own ideal dosages, I’ve taken notes of how I felt at each level.  Aside from actually measuring your performance, I think it helps a lot to go off of how you feel.

For mental tasks, like office work, you want to take just enough caffeine that you feel fully awake and alert.  If you start to notice elevated heart rate or temperature, fidgeting, or you get scatterbrained and find it hard to focus on just one thing, you’ve probably taken too much. 

For mixed mental and physical tasks like sports, the ideal dose will be a bit more than that.  You should start to notice an elevated heart rate and maybe some temperature elevation, but not much- you want a physical boost, but you don’t want your body wasting much energy.  You also don’t want to take so much caffeine that it gets hard to focus, stay aware of your surroundings, or you feel dizzy.

For fat loss, you actually do want your body to waste energy, and don’t care too much about the mental effects.  Take enough caffeine to feel a noticeable rise in heart rate and temperature, but not so much that you start to feel bad.  Bear in mind, if you’re taking caffeine for fat loss you’ll be taking it every day for weeks or months, so it needs to not make it hard for you to function.  Caffeine also suppresses your appetite- that’s good in moderation, but you do need to eat when losing weight.  No starvation diets! 

For pure strength training, a higher dose is called for.  Take enough caffeine that you feel a definite rise in heart rate and temperature, and a very compelling urge to engage in physical activity.  In other words, you should be bouncing off the walls. It’s alright if you feel a bit aggressive, irritable or scatterbrained at this dose, but it still shouldn’t make you feel unpleasant, like your heart is going to burst, or like you want to lie down until it wears off.  Also make sure it doesn’t disrupt your sleep, particularly if you work out later in the day.

Now, the effects of caffeine on sleep vary widely between individuals, depending on your tolerance and how fast you metabolize caffeine, which is largely genetic.  I metabolize it slowly, my tolerance has gone down a lot in the past year, and I have a history of insomnia, so I need to cut out caffeine fairly early in the day.  Other people can have a Red Bull right before bed and sleep just fine. 

If you want to try this but you truly have no idea what your caffeine tolerance is, be conservative.  Start at no more than half the dosages that worked for me, and work your way up gradually, hour by hour and day by day.  Remember that caffeine can take up to a half hour to kick in. 

What works for me isn’t guaranteed to work for you, but unlike most supplements, caffeine has well-documented and fairly consistent effects.  In other words, it’s bound to do something to you.  I hope my experiments will serve to inspire some of you to start experimenting on yourselves, finding out what makes your body perform at its absolute best, and caffeine is a good place to start. 

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How I fight stress and boost my productivity while looking like Robocop- My (pre-production) review of the Versus EEG headset

A few weeks ago, something remarkable happened to me.  I had just finished an hour and a half of kung-fu class, and was grabbing my bag and getting ready to head home, when I started to think about some Google ad campaigns I was running for my clients.  Then, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about work for the entire class.

This may not sound like much, but I’ve been studying kung-fu for about six years, and this is the first time I’ve ever gone through a whole class without ever thinking about anything else.  And I think I know why it happened: for the past 2 weeks, I had been meditating with the help of Versus, a headset that reads my brainwaves and provides feedback on my mental state. 

Versus headset

I’ve now been using Versus for six weeks- twenty minute sessions, three times a week.  By far the most noticeable effect has been an increased ability to stay present in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s kung-fu, dodgeball, work, the gym, or socializing.  I’ve become a little bit calmer, a little bit more focused, and a little bit more productive, and it’s making me better at almost everything I do. 

Versus, made by San Francisco-based startup SenseLabs, is one of a growing number of EEG (electroencephalograph) headsets that aim to improve brain function through the use of neurofeedback- the use of electronic devices and applications that give people clear and immediate feedback on their mental state to produce sizable, permanent improvements in mental performance.  The headset has already garnered high praise from a variety of college professional athletes, including Carlos Quentin, the UCLA women’s golf team, and keri Walsh Jennings (if you don’t know who that is, you hate America).  Now, however, most customers are using it for productivity and mental health (particularly ADHD treatment), rather than athletic benefits.

Disclaimer: My father is an advisor to SenseLabs.  I received a free Versus, but no other compensation for writing this.

My interest in consumer EEG devices began years ago with the (now defunct) Zeo sleep monitor.  I was excited to be offered the chance to use Versus, and the results I’ve gotten so far are very promising for the short time frame in which they were produced.  So for the curious, here’s how a weird-looking Six Million Dollar Man helmet manages to help people upgrade their brains. 

How Versus Works

The Versus system consists of two components- an EEG headset, and a suite of iPad apps that you use while wearing the headset.  The headset looks sort of like the skeleton of a bicycle helmet, with five sensors englobing your head.  The apps include five games which incorporate feedback from the headset, causing you to score points when your brain waves are in the desired mental state.  There’s also a master Versus app which tracks your performance data, gives you an assessment every two months or so, and allows you to monitor your brain waves in real time. 

When you first start using Versus, you take an assessment which puts you in either a stress or focus training program.  The games work the same way, you’re scored the same way, regardless of which group you’re in, and everyone has the same ultimate goal, so the main difference between the different training programs is the instructions you’re given. 

Over time, using the apps train your brain to be able to enter a state of relaxed focus, at will.  Versus trains your brain for focus and stress management, but those are further broken down into six specific capacities-

Focus capacity- How strongly stay engaged and focused on one task. 

Focus endurance- How long you can maintain that focus.

Impulse control- Your ability to avoid having your focus disrupted by distractions, and to refrain from making bad snap decisions. 

Activation baseline- How active your mind is when at rest.  Ideally fairly low, but not so low you have trouble rousing yourself into activity. 

Stress regulation- Your ability to stay relaxed and maintain a consistent mental state when facing stressful stimuli.

Max activation- The difference between your most active and least active mental states.  Ideally, your brain is very inactive when at rest and very active when engaged in a demanding task- a low difference indicates that you lack surplus mental resources because stress is consuming your brainpower. 

The mental state you’re training for is one where you’re focused but not straining, and relaxed but not disengaged.  To train yourself to enter this state of relaxed focus, you play the companion iPad games for 20 minutes, three times a week.  Versus currently comes with five games, each of which helps you to develop all six of those capacities. 

NeuroShapes- The screen displays three circles representing alpha, beta and theta brain waves.  When you enter the correct mental state, the circles converge, and you score points.  This gives you more specific feedback than the other games, and is the only game that breaks your performance down by the three different brain waves.

NeuroGlider- You steer a glider through floating rings by tilting the iPad.  When in the correct mental state, the glider gains altitude and you score points.  This is the only game to use any kind of physical controls; with the others you only have to stare at the screen.  However, your score is still based solely on mental state and not how well you steer the glider. 

NeuroRacer- A car drives around a race track on a pre-set course.  The better your mental state, the faster it drives. 

NeuroBalloon- There’s a hot air balloon.  When in the correct mental state, it rises and you score points.  Otherwise it drops, though you don’t actually lose points.

NeuroJumper- My personal favorite, you play a person in a wingsuit jumping off a cliff into a canyon.  The better you focus while staying relaxed, the farther he glides before opening his parachute.  Unfortunately, bad performance doesn’t cause him to plummet to his death.  Unlike the other games, which have multi-minute time limits that you set beforehand, Jumper is played in short runs of about 20-30 seconds, which last longer the better you do. 

How powerful and accurate are the sensors?

To answer this question, I need to give you some background on how Versus works and the science behind it.  Every other EEG headset device on the market either has only a single sensor, or arrays the sensors in a horizontal band across the forehead (or in one case, the back of the head).  Versus is unique in that it has the five sensors englobing the head- front, back, left, right and top.  This makes Versus the only consumer EEG product that can get a fully three-dimensional picture of your brain activity (medical EEGs also get 3-D pictures, of course).  Another difference between Versus and every other EEG headset is that Versus extends its sensors with “pins” made of a carbon/plastic material, which helps it to get a more accurate reading, particularly through thick hair. 

SenseLabs claims that this arrangement makes Versus more accurate than competing headsets- I haven’t tested other headsets, and even if I had I don’t know that I could evaluate that claim since what you see isn’t raw data.  So I’ve tested out the headset’s accuracy to the best of my abilities, by deliberately losing focus or thinking stressful thoughts while using it.  What I see is that Versus does seem to notice when I do this, and my score is consistently lower whenever I don’t try.

Now, for those of you who are wondering what Versus is actually reading: there are five types of brain waves- from lowest to highest frequency they are: delta waves, associated with deep sleep, theta waves, associated with light sleep and deep relaxation/meditation, alpha waves, generally found in our default resting state and relaxed concentration, beta waves, which dominate our thoughts when we’re alert and concentrating hard, and gamma waves, which occur mainly in short bursts and are believed to combine disparate thoughts into a single idea.

Versus is capable of reading all five of these brain waves, but it primarily looks at alpha, beta and theta waves, the main brain waves involved in waking thought.  One feature of the main Versus application allows you to view your alpha, beta and theta brain wave activity, and the NeruoShapes game actually provides feedback that separates your performance into these three brain waves- you can see, for instance, if you have the right amount of beta and theta but aren’t generating enough alpha waves.  Delta waves are taken into account when assigning you to a training protocol, but otherwise aren’t trained for in any of the games.  Gamma waves are incorporated into only some of the training, and aren’t actually shown to you the way theta, alpha and beta waves are.

So how accurate does this ultimately make Versus?  Well, it definitely noticed when I lose focus, or think stressful thoughts.  It clearly gives me a lower score when I don’t try.  Overall it seems very accurate, but there are a few things that can throw off its accuracy.  First off, the headset needs to be fitted correctly.  Second, you need to apply a vaseline-like conditioner to the sensor pins.  I got both of these wrong for the first week I was using Versus- after that, it worked great for me.

The other big thing that can impact accuracy is movement.  The neural impulses of muscle movement can be hard for the sensors to distinguish from brain activity.  The faster the movement or the closer it is to the headset, the more of a problem it is, with excessive movement disrupting sensor accuracy for several seconds. I find that moving my arms and legs isn’t a problem unless I do something like punch the air, but neck and head movement needs to be done slowly.  Jaw movement is an issue for me because I have a clicking jaw; otherwise it’s not hard to avoid moving enough to impair sensor accuracy. 

The headset lets you know if any of the sensors lose their connection to your head, and will pause the apps and prompt you to adjust the headset.  There also seems to be significant potential  to improve accuracy through software improvements, as a recently released update to the iPad apps has dramatically cut down on

Ultimately, Versus isn’t perfect and is definitely not on par with medical EEGs, which use about two dozen sensors glued to a person’s head.  However, it’s more than accurate enough to provide useful feedback on your mental activity and help you fight stress and improve your focus- at least once you get past the initial learning curve. 

Comfort, portability and battery life

With every brain-reading device, there’s a tradeoff between accuracy and comfort.  Other headsets err on the side of comfort in order to remain user friendly.  Versus is, as far as I know, the most accurate consumer EEG device on the market, but there is a price for that.  While using Versus isn’t torture by any means, comfort is definitely its Achilles heel. 

Instead of flat sensor pads like other headsets, Versus uses sensor pads with little conical extensions sticking out of them that jab into your head. It doesn’t help that these extensions are referred to as pins.  The sensor pins enhance the accuracy of the sensors, and are crucial for allowing Versus to scan your brain through your hair.  They also jab into your scalp, which doesn’t feel good, particularly if you’re bald and you have a brand new headset. 

My experience has been that it hurts just a little when I first put the headset on, then the ache quickly subsides, but it comes back after about 15 minutes- shortly before the session ends.  It’s probably less of an issue for people with hair, but the front sensor, at the very least is always going to rest on bare skin.  The good news is that the headset does get more comfortable as time goes on- not only do you get used to it, but the sensor pins soften over the course of the first three months or so (if you have one to yourself; a shared headset would soften a lot faster).  It’s been six weeks for me, and I now find that I rarely feel discomfort except towards the very end of my sessions. 

Versus also isn’t very portable.  It only weights about a pound, but it doesn’t fold up, and since it englobes the head, it takes up almost as much space as a volleyball.  You won’t be carrying it around with you and using it on the bus.  SenseLabs has floated the idea of providing a carrying case, but the box it comes in is ten inches to a side, and a carrying case would have to be a nine-inch cube at the smallest.  Now, I personally don’t care and wouldn’t travel with it anyway, and most users won’t either.  But if you’re a frequent traveller, be warned that traveling with it would be tough. 

Battery life has been a total non-issue for me, and has never run out while I’m using Versus.  The battery lasts several hours, which equates to at least six sessions- that’s two weeks or more of use for a single user, probably more.  I’m not sure exactly how fast the headset charges; there’s no battery display on the headset itself so all I can say is a few hours every two weeks has done the trick just fine.  If you’re buying a headset to be shared among a very large number of people, you’ll need to be sure to charge it when it’s not in use, as you can’t charge the headset (or your iPad) while using it because being connected to a grounded power source would interfere with the sensors.   But if there are less than 20 regular users sharing one headset, I wouldn’t expect battery life to be an issue. 

Price

Right now, SenseLabs is charging $399 for the headset itself, plus a subscription fee per user account.  At the moment, the subscription fee is $20 a month or $200 a year, or for $750 you can get the headset plus a lifetime subscription.  There are also discounted subscription rates for groups that want to buy a shared headset- those are still being finalized but should be visible on the website soon. 

This subscription-based pricing model is, as far as I know, unique among consumer EEG devices.  The reason for this model is that many Versus headsets are actually being shared by groups of users, such as sports teams, companies and schools.  Ultimately what this means is that Versus is a bit pricey if you buy one just for yourself, but is very affordable if you share it among even a small group of people.  I think you could realistically share one headset between 10-20 people before availability becomes an issue- remember, it can’t charge while in use. 

For those of you wondering if you could just get one account and share it among multiple people- sure you could, but mixing all of your data together would make your progress difficult to judge, and prevent Versus from tailoring your training program specifically to you.

Again, this is still in pre-production, so the cost will probably go down a bit once it enters full production.  The use of a subscription-based pricing model is almost certain not to change. 

The future of Versus

SenseLabs has a lot of improvements planned for Versus.  For starters, the current apps are iPad only, and iPhone versions are on track for release this summer. 

Right now, the way the apps automatically adjust the difficulty level and present your score to you makes it difficult to judge your progress on a session by session basis.  You also can’t see historical performance data, other than your all-time top score for each game.  That obviously needs to change.

There are plans to improve the stat tracking and presentation on the apps, so that users can get a detailed look at their historical progress, and also see a more detailed and informative breakdown of their performance on a per-session basis.  One VP also told me they intend to offer optional features for plotting your performance with Versus against real-life and lifestyle factors- such as how you feel today, or how much you slept the previous night. 

It’s not clear at this time how that will ultimately look; I’m hoping for a truly robust analytics package so I can incorporate Versus into a bunch of self-experiments, involving things like diet and sleep hacking.  In fact, I’ve recently been using it to evaluate how caffeine affects my mental performance, and what the ideal dosage of caffeine is for me- watch for an article about that later this month. 

SenseLabs has created a Versus API, which allows third-party developers to create more apps for use with the headset.  I’m really excited about the potential for third-party apps to enable a whole new wave of quantified self experiments, but right now it’s not clear how many are in development or when they might come out.  Ultimately, both the number of apps and the effort that goes into them will be proportional to how popular Versus becomes, so I’m filing this under “wait and see.” 

The last thing that’s on the horizon is a couple of minor improvements to the headset itself.  First off, SenseLabs is working with its manufacturer to slightly increase the amount of carbon in the sensor pins, which will produce a modest increase in sensor accuracy.  Second, they’re going to make the frame of the headset a little bit more flexible, which will improve comfort and help it fit people’s heads better. 

So should you buy Versus or not?

At this point, I’m confident in recommending Versus as a tool for fighting stress, and improving productivity and mental performance.  Versus has made a clear difference in my life, and from what I can see it seems my results are typical.

That said, the app needs some work, the whole system is still in pre-production, and I know most people don’t like to adopt new and unfamiliar technology quite that early.  So if you’re interested, there are three ways to go- first off, you could buy it right now.  Second, you could wait a few months since there are a few small improvements planned to the hardware- I’ll update this article when that happens, but I expect it to be late summer.  Third, you could wait for Versus to enter full production, at which point it will have more testimonials from people using it for non-athletic purposes, and will probably be less expensive.  That will be a long wait though- could be towards the end of this year, or it could even be next year.

There are several types of people who could benefit from Versus:

Athletes- This is Versus’ original target market, and the one that’s had the most proven results so far.  I’m particularly impressed by the UCLA women’s golf team case study.  If you’re an athlete, I can’t recommend Versus highly enough.

Office workers and college students looking for productivity benefits- This is the main reason I’m using Versus, and again I’ve been very impressed by my results, as well as some of the testimonials they’ve started posting.  Right now the price is definitely a barrier to your average middle-class employee, but if you’re interested in getting one for your office to share, I’d contact the company about group rates.

Grade schools- This is similar to use by office workers, just with kids instead of adults.  A lot of schools have begun trying Versus as a way to help children manage their energy levels and focus on their work.  It sounds like they’ve gotten promising results so far, and case studies are forthcoming. 

People with anxiety or ADHD-  Again, promising results, but case studies for this are likely a ways off.  Neurofeedback devices like Versus have the potential to offer a long-term alternative to drug treatments for conditions like ADHD and anxiety, and Versus may be worth trying if you have either condition.  Even in a best-case scenario though, it won’t produce results as quickly as drugs would. 

So what’s my recommendation for anyone interested in trying out neurofeedback?  It depends on who you are.  If you’re an early adopter and you have the money, I say go ahead and buy one- however, if I was buying one for myself at this point, I’d probably wait just a few months, knowing they’re going to up the carbon content of the sensors to make it a little more accurate. Just my preference though.

If you’re really interested but don’t have $750 to burn, keep following Versus, but wait for it to enter full production.  I’m sure the price will go down, though the wait, again, will be pretty long.

If you want to buy one to share with a group, I’d just go ahead and get one now.  When you’re sharing a headset, the cost of the headset itself becomes very small, plus you get a group rate on the subscriptions.  You could always get another headset for the group in 6-12 months, so I see no need to wait. 

So that’s my take on Versus- it’s an impressive step forward for the science of human performance, it’s helped me calm down and focus on my work/sports/social interactions, and it’ll probably help you if you’re willing to try it.  I’ll be mentioning it in a few future articles about smart drugs/mental performance, and will plan on writing an update about my long-term results toward the end of this year. 

If you want to read more about neurofeedback, smart drugs, and brain hacks- or just want to learn to sleep better, get swole, or fit into your old jeans from high school- sign up for my newsletter (just below this paragraph) to receive future articles in your inbox and receive a short ebook with ten low effort/high reward body hacks you can start using right now.

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Mind Control for Athletes- My First Impressions of the Versus Headset

Two weeks ago, I received something really exciting in the mail.  No, not a sex toy or a tax rebate- a brand new Versus brain training headset (the kind of thing I find exciting).  Versus, the brainchild (see what I did there?) of San Francisco-based SenseLabs, is still in pre-production, yet it has already attracted a following among high-level athletes, including X-games athletes such as Elliot Sloan, the Seattle Seahawks, UCLA women’s golf team, NBA leading 3-point scorer Kyle Korver, and members of the US Olympic team.  

I’m excited because Versus promises to improve my focus and stress management (both of which suck), and even help me get into a highly productive and rewarding “flow” state.  I’m excited because it might help me get over the heartbreak I suffered when Zeo went out of business.  And I’m excited because it makes me look and feel like the Six Million Dollar Man.  

So how is it going so far?  Well, the first week saw a few issues, which turned out to be (mostly) user error. However, for the past few days I’ve been having some great sessions with my Versus, and that leaves me with very high hopes for the next few months.  Read on for details…

The headset is cool- just make sure you get the fit right

Unlike other brain-reading devices which are arranged in a horizontal band, Versus has 5 sensors englobing the head- front, back, left, right, and on top of your head.  This arrangement offers a three-dimensional view of the brain that’s closer to what a medical EEG would provide, and more accurate than other EEG-based headset devices.  The sensor pads are each covered with flexible pins made of what seems to be some kind of plastic, and the headset also includes headphones for playing audio from the companion iPad apps, and a clip that attaches to your left ear to run a tiny electric current through your head.  Two problems I encountered- 

First off, my headset initially didn’t fit well.  Not that I couldn’t put it on- it’s flexible enough that anyone can wear it.  But the side sensors were a little tight, while the one on top was barely in contact with my head, leading to frequent disconnects (more on how I fixed that later) as well as insecurity about how flat the top of my head is.  It was only after video chatting with SenseLabs’ quality assurance manager that I learned how to adjust the headset to the point where it fits my head and disconnects almost never happen.  

Second, the pin pads make the headset a bit uncomfortable- they’re rounded rather than sharp, but it’s still a few pounds of force being applied to my head across a few dozen small points.  Apparently the first model had graphite pins that felt like mechanical pencils (just…ouch) while the next pre-production model coming out this year will have larger pin pads, to spread the same force out over a larger area.  I’ve found that the headset is usually a bit painful to put on at first, but you stop feeling it after a few minutes, and I’m also slowly getting used to it.  The QA manager told me that, in addition to getting used to the feeling, the pins also soften over the course of a few weeks of use.  I did try out a Versus once at a company event, and it was a lot more comfortable, so this seems to be true- I’ll just have to see how long it takes.  

The documentation needs to be expanded on

Like I said, most of my initial problems were due to user error- but that was largely because for the moment, the instructions are split between a paper manual, online videos, and instructions provided within the companion iPad app, and none of them are quite thorough enough, which is why I ended up having to video chat with someone  

I knew you could bend the headset somewhat to get a better fit, but without a video showing me how to do it, I was afraid of breaking my headset and didn’t bend it hard enough.  Turns out the headset has a steel frame that’s a lot more durable than it looks.    

There’s a bottle of pin pad conditioner (some kind of vaseline-like substance) that you’re supposed to apply to the sensor pins every week or so.  I totally overlooked this, and it gets only the briefest mention in the instructions.  It turns out that this, even more than the fit of the headset, was the reason my headset initially had so much trouble reading my brain waves.

SenseLabs knows the instructions are an issue, and is totally re-doing them,, so I expect this to be a non-issue within a few months.  As it stands now, there was an initial learning curve that took me a week or two to get over between figuring out how to adjust my headset and apply the conditioner.  

I’m a fucking idiot

Upon receiving my Versus, I tore into the package like a kid on Christmas morning.  Got the headset out, admired it for a few minutes, took a selfie with it, and then got down to business.  I signed up for the Versus Genesis program and set up my account, which was easy and kind of exciting.  Then I started downloading the apps and…nothing.  The downloads wouldn’t complete.  

At first I thought it was just my internet connection, but then I realized the horrible truth- Versus is only compatible with late-model iPads, and mine was too old.  I had a second-generation iPad, and I needed an iPad 3.  I couldn’t let my amazing new headset go to waste, so I settled on a solution: I would buy a refurbished iPad 3 from Best buy.  I was all set to do that last Thursday when, as luck would have it, on Wednesday night a guy in my kung-fu class asked if anyone had an iPad for sale.  

Back home that night, I’m looking up my iPad’s specs for the guy- turns out this is harder than it sounds, because it doesn’t just say “iPad 2, 8 GB” anywhere in your settings.  You have to look up a model number that’s written in tiny print on the back of your iPad, and according to that model number…mine is an iPad 3.  Which doesn’t make sense, right?  Except it turns out that my OS is out of date.  So after updating the OS, the Versus apps worked just fine.

You guys…if I hadn’t had someone inquire about buying my iPad, and if I hadn’t thought to take it to Best Buy to trade in the next day, I would have spend about $230 on a new (well, used) iPad 3…the exact same model I already had.  

It’s really fun, and I seem to be making progress

Okay, so there were a lot of hassles…but now that I’m past them, this thing totally rocks.  At the moment it comes with five games, each of which has you staring at the screen trying to remain focused while also staying completely calm and stress-free, and one of which also has you using the iPad’s accelerometer to steer a glider.  It’s fun, it’s relaxing, and I look forward to my sessions with Versus.  Much like going to the gym, it’s something that I actually wish I could do more often (they suggest three 20-minute sessions a week).  

The games also have leaderboards, which provide a sense of competition to motivate people to keep playing.  You can see how your overall breakdown (it scores you on six attributes related to stress and focus, which I’ll break down in my next article) compares to athletes in different sports- hockey players have the best overall mental performance, though that’s admittedly based on a small sample size.  And finally, you can see some basic profiles of other Versus users, showing their training program, favorite game, sport, and overall score.  This feature is clearly a work in progress, and most of the pro athletes don’t use it, while most of the SenLabs employees I can see are on a stress reduction program (as am I for that matter), which tells you something about Bay Area startup culture.  

It has a ton of potential

What really excited me is the potential for Versus to expand on it’s current capabilities with analytics that correlate your mental performance with what you’ve been doing in life.  Want to learn what the perfect pre-game nutrition is for you?  The ideal times at which you should go to sleep and wake up for optimum mental performance?  The perfect amount of caffeine- or any other performance-enhancing supplement?  Versus could easily answer this questions using the hardware is it exists now- only the iPad apps would need to be improved on to make it happen.

As I write this, SenseLabs has just released updated versions of all the apps, which give you more detailed session data after each time you play a game.  I’ve done about six sessions with Versus, but only two since I finally started using it correctly.  I’m already seeing clear progress in my scores with the brain-training apps, but it’s still too early to feel any improvement in real life, outside of the Versus apps.

I’ve been told that I should feel improvement in my real-life mental performance within a couple weeks- not to mention a softening of the sensor pins, which would make the headset a lot more comfortable.  I’m also still evaluating the Versus software, which itself is under continual development.  So here’s what’s next: I’m going to keep using Versus 3-4 times a week.  In two or three weeks I’ll write a follow-up post explaining the progress I’ve made, giving more detail on what Versus measures (Focus and Stress are each broken down into three sub-attributes that bear some explaining), and offering up whatever I can learn about what’s coming up in Versus’ development.  After that, I’ll start  experimenting wit nootropics (brain drugs) and using Versus to measure their effects.  

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How to cure a caffeine addiction in four days, without withdrawal symptoms

For much of my life, I needed large amounts of caffeine just to get by.  As a kid, that meant a liter or two of Dr. Pepper a day.  As an adult, it meant energy drinks and green tea.  Because of my addiction, I was always twitchy and nervous, and could never sleep well or put on muscle.  I tried to quit over and over again, only to experience debilitating headaches and extreme lethargy which drove me to return to my addiction.

A few years ago, I decided that enough was enough: I was going to kick my addiction once and for all.  But this time, instead of relying on sheer willpower, I resolved to figure out how caffeine addiction works in the brain, and use that knowledge to find an easier solution.  What I discovered was that caffeine abuse causes deficiencies in two amino acids: Tyrosine and Phenylalanine.  By fixing those deficiencies, I was able to shortcut the entire withdrawal process and overcome my addiction in 4 days- other people Ive spoken with have done it in as little as 2 days.  

You see, caffeine works by causing your brain to overproduce dopamine.  Dopamine is made from L-Dopa, which is made from Tyrosine, which is made from Phenylalanine.  Extended caffeine use uses up your stores of Tyrosine and Phenylalanine, so your brain reduces its dopamine production to conserve them.  It then takes progressively more caffeine to force your brain to use its remaining amino acid stores to produce dopamine- meaning you consume more caffeine, let have less energy and feel terrible.  

Thankfully, this addiction can be cured very quickly by supplementing either Tyrosine or Phenylalanine for just a few days.  Best of all, this hack allows you to avoid the headaches, lethargy and other withdrawal symptoms that most people experience when quitting caffeine.

Dosages: How Much and When

Youll need to acquire a bottle of Tyrosine or Phenylalanine pills (pros and cons of each below).  Ideally these pills should be 500 mg each; 250 mg is alright, but dont get anything larger than 500 mg, as youll want to reduce the dosage over time.  The dosage is the same regardless of which amino acid you choose.  

For the first two days, take 1000 mg of your chosen supplement first thing in the morning, and another 1000 mg at lunch.

For the next two days, take 500 mg first thing in the morning, and another 500 mg at lunch.  

For two days after that, take 500 mg first thing in the morning only.

You probably wont need to go for the whole six days- I only needed four days, and many people only need two.  If at any point you feel that your desire to consume caffeine is gone and your energy levels are back to normal, you can end this regimen early.    

Tyrosine or Phenylalanine?

This hack works with either L-Tyrosine or DL-Phenylalanine, and the choice comes down to individual preference.  Because Tyrosine needs one fewer step to convert to dopamine, you may find it more stimulating, which you may or may not want.  Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, as your body uses it to produce other amino acids including Tyrosine.  Tyrosine, on the other hand, cannot be converted back to Phenylalanine. 

My personal preference is to use DL-Phenylalanine, because it will also fix a Tyrosine deficiency, whereas Tyrosine wont directly fix a Phenylalanine deficiency.  However, if you want something that will produce a mild stimulant effect, Tyrosine is more likely to be the better choice for you.    

Once youve cured your caffeine addiction, you can consume caffeine on occasion without becoming addicted again- but be warned, youll most likely find that it has a stronger effect on you than it did before.  Instead of consuming caffeine every time your energy level starts flagging, you should deal with energy slumps by drinking a tall glass of water- and, optionally, taking another Tyrosine or Phenylalanine pill.  Youll be surprised at how often a glass of water is all you need.

My experience with caffeine addiction is one of the main reasons why I write so much on sleep and body hacking, rather than just focusing on diet and exercise like so many other fitness writers.  I have several more articles about sleep hacking and curing insomnia coming out over the next few weeks- if you want to learn to consistently get 7-9 hours of quality sleep every night, enter your e-mail address below to get those articles sent straight to your inbox.  Join now and you’ll also receive a FREE Food-Mutilator 5000 blender  an ebook with ten of my favorite fitness hacks, all of which you can read and implement in just a few short days.

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How to start meditating every day

I’m a pretty high-strung guy by nature.  I have trouble sitting still, I can rarely focus on anything for more than five minutes, I’m always worrying about the future, and oh shit did that girl just look at me?

So naturally, I’ve been advised to try meditation many times over the years.  And naturally, I’ve found it very difficult.  I’d give it a try for twenty minutes or so, have trouble, try it again a few more times over the next two weeks, and give up.  Rinse and repeat two or three times a year.  For years.

But all that has changed recently- for the last two months, I’ve meditated almost every day, and I can feel myself starting to become calmer and more grounded.   I owe it all to a little bit of advice from my kung-fu teacher.  The keys to my newfound success?  Starting small and keeping it simple.  Read on-

Meditate for just two minutes a day to begin with

In the past, I tried to meditate for twenty minutes at a time, which many experts consider to be the minimum for a solid meditation session.  But between the time commitment and how frustrating meditation can be when you first start out, trying to meditate for twenty minutes at a time is a formula for frustration, inconsistency and eventually giving up.

To make something into a habit, doing it consistently is more important than doing a lot of it at a time.  That’s why my kung-fu teacher told our class to start with just two minutes a day.  If you can do something for two minutes every day for one or two weeks, it becomes a habit and then it gets easier to keep doing.  

From there you can start lengthening your meditation sessions, but only make the effort to do that after you’ve achieved consistency.  To begin with, don’t force yourself to go longer than two minutes if you don’t want to- you’ll quit altogether if it feels like torture.  

The easiest meditation to start with

There are many different styles of meditation, but here’s what my teacher recommends starting with: Sit down in a comfortable chair, with your back straight, and close your eyes.  Make sure you’re in a room without anything that would distract you.  Start breathing in and out, slowly and deeply.  Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, saying “Ommmm” on the exhale- yes, just like those Zen monks in the movies. 

While doing this, mentally repeat a mantra consisting of an “I am…” statement.  For instance, “I am calm,” or “I am happy.”  Mentally repeat this mantra once each on the inhale and the exhale- don’t try to repeat it more often than that, or you’ll feel rushed.  

That’s it.  No lotus position, no meditation CD’s, no yoga poses.  This is the easiest way to start out, and the most effective way to initially turn meditation into a habit. I’ve been doing this for two months, and I’m already feeling the results from it, despite usually stopping at two or three minutes and never going for more than five- while I’m sure twenty minutes a day would be better, it seems you can get results with much, much less.  

If you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, low on energy, having trouble sleeping, or just want to feel more focused and grounded, I highly recommend getting into the habit of meditation.  Along with a few other lifestyle changes I’ve made to help me sleep better and be more alert during the day, meditation has been one of the major contributing factors to my dramatic increase in well-being over the past year.  If you’d like to learn about those other changes that has dramatically improved my life, sign up below to download my free ebook, Ten Life-Changing Fitness Hacks. 

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