“Diets are for fat people!” Jonathan Brnak yells into the microphone. It’s 8:30am at the Bulletproof Biohacking Conference, and things are already getting lit, or whatever the alcohol-free early-morning equivalent of “lit” is. The crowd, judging on appearance, is full of CrossFit’s mostly white, mostly male, buff and bearded elite. Brnak, a longtime Bulletproof employee, claims (as many Bulletproof enthusiasts do) that he tried everything to quit his “life-threatening” addiction to the devious fried confection known on the streets as “donuts”. Nothing worked, until he was turned on to the Bulletproof way of life via the man Jonathan now calls his mentor, Dave Asprey. By now, you may have heard Asprey’s narrative: A sluggish and puggish American businessman takes a sip of yak butter tea while trying to find himself in the mountains of Tibet in 2009. In lieu of self-realization (and in the name of good ol’ fashioned cultural appropriation) he takes the yak butter idea and creates an entire industry around Bulletproof-branded powders, potions, pills, and cookbooks. He even opened a flagship coffee shop, all to support the promise that these products will change your life — boosting your metabolism and improving brain function, among other things — one cup at a time. What is missing from Asprey’s claims, however, is a reputable scientific study that proves his products actually work beyond personal testimonials. Of course, a lack of science never stopped anyone from building entire philosophies (cough L. Ron Hubbard cough), and in 2013 Asprey launched the first-ever Bulletproof-branded conference. The brand’s mission, according to the website, is to help people “perform better, think faster, and live better using a proven blend of ancient knowledge and brand new technologies.” (Can we agree that there is nothing more legit-sounding, and conversely harder to prove, than “ancient knowledge” and “new technology”?) The original conference took place in San Francisco with a strict cap of fifty attendees, and for a mere $1,950 you had access to experts in the field of biohacking, the DIY biology that is more about following your curiosity than actual scientific practices. The conference is now in its fourth year and has grown from fifty attendees to 4,000. Curious about the biohacking hype, I squeezed into my very serious journalist yoga pants (which are just like regular yoga pants except they have never been in an actual yoga studio) and drove to South Pasadena, California, where the 4th Annual Bulletproof Biohacking Conference was being held. I wanted to experience the Dave Asprey universe firsthand and determine whether there was something to the idea of optimum health through hacking, or if it was all a bunch of buttery B.S.
I enter Exhibit Hall E as Brnak is reaching the climax of his impassioned speech against donuts. “[Biohacking] changed my life and my girlfriend’s life!” he exclaims. “I’d like to bring her onstage to thank her.” The red-faced girlfriend, whose name is never mentioned, wanders onstage like a baby deer about to be sacrificed and turned into a protein smoothie. Brnak power-lunges onto one knee, nearly splitting his suit, and under the romantic florescent lighting, while making sure to engage his core, he asks his girlfriend to marry him. She says yes, and the crowd of believers turns their coos into wild grunts of approval. Right on cue, Asprey glides on stage clapping slowly, like a calm, collected movie villain, and announces with a voice as smooth as well, butter, “You’ve just been biohacked.” He fires two finger guns, and the crowd loses their collective shit. One muscular male devotee pounds his hand between his generous pectoral muscles, rips off his shirt, and swings it over his head like a helicopter. No one could assert that Brnak’s successful marriage proposal was the direct result of Asprey’s products, but still — the triumphant moment is essential to the Bulletproof narrative. It is not the coffee or the powders or devices Asprey is pedaling that can miraculously change your body and life: It’s the entire Bulletproof lifestyle. You, too, could be Jonathan Brnak. Look at him! He’s thin, he’s happy, he’s getting married. See it with your own eyes. Who needs science? Just before the buzz of newly-engaged bliss wears off, Neil Strauss takes the stage. Strauss is a well-known journalist and recovering pick-up artist (he literally wrote The Game), whose presentation, “Running a Virus Scan on Your Mental Operating System,” was one of the more highly anticipated talks of the conference. He begins the way every speaker at the conference does, with a series of what ifs, as he draws lines on a dry erase board. “What if I told you you could have the life you’ve always wanted?” He draws a long horizontal line. “What if I told you you could have the body you’ve always wanted?” A vertical line. “What if I told you you could have the best sex of your life?” You can almost hear the sound of the crowd licking their collective chops as Strauss completes his diagram and reveals a square that, ostensibly, means nothing. He follows up his reveal with, “By the way, I know there are a lot of doctors and scientists in the audience today, so if my ‘science’ doesn’t match ‘science-science,’ consider it a metaphor.” A joke? A disclaimer? No one seems fazed by this loosely shrouded admission that what he’s saying might be bunk. If Asprey and Strauss are Gods for the performance-obsessed agnostic, then they are preaching to a fully-committed, muscular choir.
When Strauss’ talk ends, everyone rushes in one of two directions: straight toward Strauss for an autograph, or into the exhibitors’ hall. In addition to the roster of speakers, the conference promised attendees access to the latest in wearable tech and high-performance health gadgets presented in an exhibition hall dubbed the Bulletproof Tech Hall. As I enter the Tech Hall I am immediately greeted by Nick, a chiseled young man who hands me a pile of free loot. Even a hard-hitting reporter in breathable cotton/Lycra blend workout wear isn’t impervious to the lure of a good swag bag, and in the name of not-so-honest reporting, I take a fistful of branded pens and shove them into my free Bulletproof tote when Nick moves on to the next person. I turn my attention to the several hundred attendees in tank tops wandering the floor. If Hillary fans are still gathering in bars to drown their post-election sorrows, the Bulletproof conference is where you will find the fittest segment of Bernie bros, mansplaining their way to optimum biological performance and praying on the altar of Dave Asprey. There are enough man buns and other assorted hair pastries to fill the gluten-free aisle of your local grocery store. Aside from your run-of-the-mill O2 bar and activewear clothing kiosks, the long rows of tables hold strange tech gear that look as if they belong in a straight-to-Netflix sci-fi movie. I walk by a group of yolked-out buffys effortlessly doing advanced yoga poses on vibrating platforms. The platform is called the Bulletproof Vibe, and it’s Asprey’s newest product. He claims it can detoxify and strengthen your immune system by manipulating gravity. He won’t tell you how, exactly, but he mentions NASA and astronauts and a few vague studies from Europe, and we’re just supposed to take his word for it. Other products on view include but are not limited to: Nucalm: Described as “Neuroscience you can wear.” The makers’ “peer-to-peer research” states it has been proven to lower PTSD and stress, among other incredible health benefits. What exactly is Nucalm, you ask? I’m not sure! And neither is the woman manning the booth when I ask her. What it looks like is several people in black lawn chairs covered in blankets, wearing large eye masks and headphones that aren’t plugged into anything. Which does seem pretty stress-reducing, tbh. FatWater: Also known as “water with a purpose,” or Asprey’s foray into sports drinks. It is basically water fortified with one of his best selling products, Brain Octane. Let me spare you the anticipation: It tastes like liquid Crocs. Brain simulator: I never get to learn what this product does, because this display is literally just an empty booth.
After lunch, I have the opportunity to interview Dave Asprey himself. I want to confront him about the validity of the claims I’ve heard throughout the weekend. I want to ask him whether he really believes in the experiments and products he sells. But when he enters the room, humbly dressed in well-fitted jeans and a button-down shirt, all I can think to ask is whether, despite all his success, he still sometimes feels like the fat, insecure guy he left behind on that mountain in Tibet. I know for me, no matter how healthy I’m eating, or how well my jeans fit, I still feel like my inner eight-year-old chubby kid double fisting butter sammies before bed (a real thing I actually did — I guess I was Bulletproof before it was a thing). So I ask him, and he looks at me with a piercing blue-eyed glare that would make Tom Cruise blush, and says no. “By using a technique called neuro feedback augmented retro framing, I’ve gone back and changed my internal story around that.” With that, Dave Asprey is ushered to his next interview, and I am left to Google whatever the hell he just said. So no enlightenment there. But, for all the fanfare and all the jargon, there was still something about the Bulletproof phenomenon I couldn’t shake. Although I’m not what anyone would consider a biohacker, I was a bit envious wondering around the Tech Hall watching all the bright-eyed believers buy into the stuff Asprey and his band of faux prophets were peddling. Because I came to the conference not just as a correspondent, but as someone who has carefully picked my way through the obstacle course of western medicine. In 2015, I was diagnosed with stage three, triple-negative breast cancer. There is no history of cancer in my family, and I tested negative for the cancer gene. Like many of Asprey’s experiments, there was no logical, proven scientific explanation why I got cancer. It just happened. After seven intensive rounds of chemo that failed to shrink the tumor (even though all available data indicated it should have worked) my doctors and I made the choice to move to surgery. There I was, a thirty-year-old woman having to forego my sexual and emotional peak to make the decision to freeze my eggs and remove my breasts. As ridiculous as all the products were, and as easy as it was to make fun of the people buying them, I couldn’t genuinely judge the Bulletproof believers — because I wanted to believe, too. I wanted a way to not only prevent cancer from coming back, but to program my body to exceed expectations of what it means to be healthy in the first place. “Health is boring,” Asprey told me during our brief conversation. “You want to know who wants to be healthy? Sick people.” He was right, and even though his claims were based on faulty science, he wasn’t wrong for wanting to believe them. Because the truth is, science can fail us. I wanted to feel invincible after nine months of being poked and prodded and cut open in the name of reputable science. I wanted to change my biological narrative. I didn’t want to be the cancer girl anymore, and if it meant putting a strange powder in my coffee or doing yoga on a vibrating platform, I was open to at least trying it. I left the convention as dusk was setting over Pasadena’s Green Street and hurried to my car just before the parking meter ran out (the most exercise I got all weekend). I looked across the promenade where Nerdbot-Con, a nerd and cosplay convention, was being held. Grown men and women in spandex were parading as superheroes and anime characters, fantasizing about a life more fantastical than their own. I couldn’t judge them either; because the nerds, the CrossFitters, and me — under the muscles and stretchy leotards and yoga pants — we were all the same. We weren’t just blind followers of fantasies, but vulnerable optimists striving for something more.