Becoming superhuman through DIY brain-scanning

This is the first of four articles I’ve written about the Versus EEG headset.  Give this a quick read, then check out my initial impressions of the headset, then my full review of Versus, and finally the caffeine and productivity self-experiments I ran using Versus.

Have you ever wished you could look inside your brain and see what it’s doing in real time?  That you could directly measure your brain waves to see how different situations, behaviors, and even drugs affect your focus, stress levels, and ability to stay “in the zone?”  That you had some way of knowing for sure how well your feeble attempts at meditation are really working?  

I have, and my wish is about to come true.  I’ve long suffered from anxiety, lack of focus and poor impulse control, and improving on those weaknesses has been a long, slow process.  In two weeks I’ll be acquiring a biofeedback device that can directly measure stress, focus, and impulse control by reading my brain waves.  That device is called the Versus, and I expect it to dramatically accelerate my efforts at improving my mental fitness.

Full disclosure: My father is an advisor to SenseLabs, the company that makes the Versus.   SenseLabs is giving me a free Versus, but I’m receiving no other compensation for this.  I’ll try and be as objective as possible. 

The Versus is essentially a small, portable EEG machine, coupled with a tablet app that connects to it to gamify the whole biofeedback process.  Compared to other brain-monitoring devices that have come on the market so far, the Versus offers more powerful EEG sensors that achieve greater resolution over a larger area of the brain, and can provide more detail about what’s happening in your brain.  Until recently, detail like this could only be provided by sensors that had to be stuck to your head with sticky goo, making them impractical for anyone who isn’t bald.  Since I am bald, I would have been fine with this, and in fact had visions of using such devices to engineer a subspecies of superhuman bald men.  With the arrival of the Versus, the Superhuman Bald Men will probably be confined to the real of historical fiction (which I’d totally ready by the way).  

I had the opportunity to test the Versus last month at an event held by SenseLabs.  It’s bulkier than other brainwave-sensing devices, and so far seems like it’s probably less comfortable, but apparently that extra bulk makes a big difference- the speakers at the event included experts in neuropsychology and human performance, as well as athletes such as olympic volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings.  I was most impressed by UCLA women’s golf coach Carrie Forsyth, who said that the Versus helped her players drop an average of two strokes from their scores- a huge improvement for someone who is already playing at that level.  Throughout the conference the Versus was pitched as a way to train your brain to get into a “flow” state   

Indeed, so far the Versus seems to have attracted interest only among high-level athletes.  The cost of buying one right now (it’s still in pre-production) is $749- $499 for the headset itself, and $250 for a two-year subscription for one user to Genesis, the companion iPad app that provides brain-training exercises and progress tracking.  SenseLabs is continually developing the app and adding functionality, and there’s also an API that allows third-party developers to create their own Versus apps.  However, the price is very steep, and I can’t see this having mass market appeal until it gets more affordable. 

I’m going to start using the Versus in January.  I have high hopes that it will help me feel more relaxed, be more productive while I’ working, and of course, sleep better.  But I’m also going to go beyond just doing the exercises over and over under the same conditions- once I establish some baseline stats for myself, I’m going to test my performance on the different exercises under various conditions.  In two months I’ll know, among other things, how much drinking alcohol or spending a few minutes petting a cat really relaxes me, whether caffeine helps or hurts my focus, and how my mind changes after eating a big meal.  Later on I’ll even test a few supplements that most people aren’t familiar with, such as noopept, 5-HTP and carnitine.  

I was a huge fan of the Zeo Personal Sleep Manager before the company went out of business, and ever since then I’ve been waiting for something like this to come along.  If you’re thinking about investing in a headset of your own and becoming a real-life Robocop, or if you just want to know which drugs and meditation techniques are the most effective at quieting your mental chatter and helping you get into a flow state, I’ll be reporting my findings every week or two on this blog on and on mailing list.  Stay tuned, and happy holidays.  

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