Living in a quick-fix culture, many of us are on the lookout for ways to reap maximum rewards with minimal effort – whether we realise it or not. We’ve got apps to remind us to drink water and boost our workplace productivity, and voice-powered personal assistants at our beck and call for, well, just about everything. Now, more and more people are taking extreme measures to hack their way to superhuman physical and cognitive performance, and their influence is slowly leaking out of the clandestine confines of Silicon Valley startups and elite sport, and making its way into the mainstream wellness sphere. Enter: the biohackers.
What is biohacking? In short, it’s the practice of altering your biology to boost your physical and cognitive performance. It sounds intense (and many biohackers swear by expensive gadgets, like this $199.99 CAD brain-calming headband or this $1300 USD silver diamond sleep-tracking ring) but actually, a five-minute cold shower and intermittent fasting also fall under the 'biohacking' umbrella.
One biohacking product in particular promises results that are too good to ignore. It's called the HumanCharger and, as its name suggests, promises to recharge you – rather like a phone battery, run down from overuse in a world demanding that you're constantly on the move. But does it work? I decided to give it a go to find out.
Like many people, I feel noticeably sprightlier in sunnier climes. Yes, it may have something to do with the onslaught of Aperol Spritzes, but when the sun has got its hat on, I am indeed "hip hip hooray". Sadly, this means that the shorter, darker days of winter often wreak havoc on my mental and physical wellbeing.
Combined with leading an incubated life (commute-work-commute-sleep), I rarely receive enough serotonin-boosting sunlight from October to March, which exacerbates my symptoms of SAD (seasonal affective disorder makes up 10% of all depression cases in Canada). Much like my doomed-to-wither houseplants, this leaves me feeling sluggish, lethargic and ready to reach into the snack drawer by mid-morning.
While hopping on a plane and following the sun to Bondi or the Bahamas becomes tempting come 6pm, it’s not a viable option for many of us. But what if we could access (in the words of Natasha Bedingfield) a pocketful of sunshine whenever we needed a dose? The HumanCharger might just be the answer.
Developed in Finland – where, in December, daylight lasts for just six hours – the HumanCharger resembles an iPod Nano circa 2005, except the headphones use fibre optics to channel UV-free light to the light-sensitive regions of your brain, rather than blast out Akon and Axel F. The makers of the HumanCharger claim that using it can increase energy levels, improve mood, boost mental alertness and promote faster recovery from the effects of jet lag. A lifesaver for time-zone-traversing professionals, night shift workers and SAD sufferers.
Too good to be true, right? For me, sadly, yes. I trialled the HumanCharger over the wettest, darkest late-September week on record and did not find it to be an effective solution. While it felt good to be getting on top of SAD before the winter took hold, I wouldn’t recommend swapping out your vitamin D supplements in favour of this light therapy device, no matter how quick and convenient it appears to be. I also trialled it on a 5am flight to see if it could alleviate that out-of-whack feeling that comes with an early plane journey. I wasn’t traversing any time zones so cannot comment on its ability to cure jet lag, but I certainly didn’t feel any peppier – at least until I’d had my double macchiato.
Frustrated, I decided to do a little digging into the science behind the HumanCharger. The website cites (plentiful) research but I was unable to find any from sources outside the organisation. Independent quotes weren’t available, I was told, but I was provided with statements. Juuso Nissilä, the cofounder of Valkee, which makes the HumanCharger, said: "HumanCharger is the most significant invention since it was discovered that people need light to rhythm their daily lives." And according to Jari Karhu PhD, a specialist in clinical neurophysiology and Valkee's chief medical advisor: "The body of evidence proves that bright light transmitted through the ear canal stimulates brain activity and is capable of increasing cognitive performance in clinically significant amount."
Those I spoke to outside the organisation were more wary. Dr Clare Morrison, a GP and medical advisor at MedExpress, admitted she had never come across a device like this but said: "I’m very sceptical about how this device can do what it claims to do. It is true that the body is sensitive to light, and that, in some situations, natural sunlight or bright artificial light, can boost one's mood and energy levels." However, she added: "As far as I am aware, light therapy would only work if the light was applied to the eyes, rather than the ears."
Psychotherapist Helena Lewis tells me that for the management of SAD, light therapy is only part of the solution. "Light therapy can be incredibly beneficial, but it is artificial. We need to find a balance between using light therapy and artificial solutions, and not destroying our natural rhythms." She added: "Taking vitamin D, exercising and maintaining a healthy diet are all far superior, effective ways of keeping SAD symptoms at bay."
For $275 CAD, perhaps you're better off saving for that flight to Bondi, after all.