I Thync This Might Be Bullshyt

There’s been a little bit of curious excitement over a new product called Thync, a wearable module that is intended to reduce stress, induce relaxation, or energize through stimulation of the brain. Here’s how they put it:

Thync uses neurosignaling to activate specific cranial and peripheral nerves to influence this balance and shift you to a state of calm or give you a boost of energy in minutes. …

Neurosignaling is the coupling of an energy waveform to a neural structure (receptor, nerve or brain tissue) to modulate its activity.

Neurosignaling waveforms or Vibes consist of precise algorithms that bias activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, so that you can enjoy a shift into a more energetic or relaxed state.

Why yes, in case you’re curious, I also think it sounds like bullshit.

Okay, maybe bullshit is too strong a word, especially since I’m not qualified to judge the science behind it. It wouldn’t surprise me if something like this could be expected to have some kind of relaxing effects, in a way that just barely stops short of a placebo effect. Heck, even I sometimes use those “binaural waves” apps on my phone, not because I actually think it’s manipulating my brain waves, but because it makes for good white noise when I just need to shut the world out and chill for a bit.

My guess is that, at best, Thync does something like that; distracting you enough with the fact that you have a svelte, expensive doohicky on your forehead that zaps you a little. If nothing else, it’s something to think about other than whatever’s bothering you.

Kyle Russell at TechCrunch tried it out, and certainly had some sort of experience:

While I was warned that Thync might not work the first time, a few minutes into my first session (using the Calm setting) I felt a wave of sluggishness pass over me. I had some difficulty putting words into a coherent question for [Thync CEO Isy] Goldwasser, and felt a strong urge to take a nap that lasted until I got home. While I may have cranked the settings too high for my first go, the impression I got was that it would be great for falling asleep, not de-stressing at the office.

There’s a big red flag for me right at the very beginning of that quote. Why woudn’t it work the first time? Either it’s “neurosignaling to activate specific cranial and peripheral nerves” or it’s not. Unless human brains have some sort of neurosignaling-callus that needs to be worn down first, and I’m going to assume they don’t, it should just work the first time and all subsequent times.

But how does one explain Russell’s sudden onset of sluggishness? The possible factors that have nothing to do with Thync are endless, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to me that the very fact (and, frankly, stress) of having a gadget on your head that you’re told is going to zap your brain would certainly cause you to expend some mental and emotional energy, and zonk you out a bit. Russell says that the device emits “a wavy, tingly feeling on your upper forehead and the front of your scalp” that “would definitely take a few uses before it stops feeling weird.” Again, this is what I’d say is “just short of” a placebo effect. Something is happening, but not what they say is happening.

Encouragingly, Thync posts an actual test it conducted on the product. However, from my admittedy strained and untrained gleaning of the results, it didn’t seem like the Thync product induced any states that were meaningfully different from “sham treatment.” There was definitely an uptick in test subjects saying they were more relaxed than not compared to “sham,” but nothing that appeared all that convincing to me, and certainly not spend-$300-on-a-cranial-dongle convincing.

(I’d post some images of graphs from the study, but they require permission to be granted for that, and whatever.)

And here’s another thing: It seems like what Thync’s CEO tells Russell at TechCrunch is a little different than what is being sold on the website:

During the demo, Thync co-founder and CEO Isy Goldwasser explained that the module wasn’t directly stimulating neurons in my brain (that would be too damn weird for me to try, to be honest). Instead, it uses tiny pulses of electricity to stimulate the skin at your temple, which then activates the instinctual fight-or-flight response in your brain to indirectly affect emotional response.

Well, there are lots of things that can stimulate skin and activate fight-or-flight, and most of them are free.

I frankly don’t understand the science or the published study sufficiently to make any kind of authoritative judgment, but it sure smells like some kind of ophidian secretion.