Can You Hack Your Own Brain?

By Sheeva Azma

Elizabeth Ricker is my former college classmate at MIT (we both studied Brain & Cognitive Sciences!). She’s founded both Ricker Labs, which supports science and technology companies, and Neuroeducate, a citizen neuroscience organization. Ricker has just published a new book, Smarter Tomorrow. In the book, she talks about ways to boost your brain function — something called “neurohacking” — in only 15 minutes a day. What exactly is neurohacking? Keep reading to find out, and make sure to check out the book.

photo of a brain marked on one side with brain functions corresponding to different brain areas (this is known as phrenology)
Photo by meo on Pexels.com

In her new book, Smarter Tomorrow, Elizabeth Ricker sets out to answer a tough question she’s asked herself for decades:

Is it possible to upgrade your brain?

Ricker studied and conducted neuroscience research at MIT and Harvard, and has earned degrees from both places. She’s worked at and consulted a slew of technology startups, including the famous brain training company Lumosity. It’s clear that her wish list of brain function upgrades is long. She’d like to learn faster, remember details better, and tackle daily responsibilities without losing track of them.

In Smarter Tomorrow, Ricker basically creates an experimental framework for upgrading one’s brain function. However, the book is not intended to provide medical advice that can literally be used to improve one’s brain function. Instead, it introduces the concept of “neurohacking” as a way to be able to work smarter, not harder.

Wait, what is neurohacking?

In Smarter Tomorrow, Ricker suggests that you can “work better, think faster, and get more work done” by spending 15 minutes a day doing something called “neurohacking.”

To explain what neurohacking is, first you have to know about the history of hacks at MIT, which Ricker explains in her book. At MIT, hacks are not computer hacking. They’re pranks or practical jokes that are fun and ethical. Ricker mentions the time hackers put a police car on the MIT dome; they also turned it into R2D2 and the One Ring to rule them all from Lord of the Rings.

In fact, “hacking” is also a term used at MIT as a way to solve difficult problems. MIT students can often be found “hacking” on a problem set (also known as homework). That’s why the word “neurohacking” refers just as much to self-experimenting with ways that one’s brain works best, as much as it refers to trying to change the way that one’s brain works for better.

Think of brain hacking or “neurohacking” as a type of problem solving for your brain and mind.

Ricker defines neurohacking as “involving two activities: exploring your current mental ability and upgrading them.” It seems important to point out here that these neurohacks are not tried-and-true strategies. The whole point of neurohacking is to experiment and find out what brain “hacks” might work to improve your cognitive function. Think of brain hacking as a type of problem solving for your brain and mind.

As Ricker told me via email, “The general approach for neurohacking is always 1) find strongly promising evidence within the peer-reviewed literature that’s been conducted on (ideally large scale) groups; 2) customize a protocol for a self-experiment that adheres as closely to the peer-reviewed study as possible — while adapting it for feasible and comfy at-home use; 3) run your self-experiment.”

The neurohacking tips provided in this book serve as an exploration — a “self-experiment,” she writes. It is an interesting and unique approach. If, instead of drinking a coffee to focus at 4 pm, I can spend a few minutes looking at my smartphone’s blue light (which is known to promote alertness and even keep you awake at night), I’d much rather do that.

Ricker’s book has five parts.

Part 1 is a primer on neurohacking and the brain in general, including neuroplasticity. This section also includes examples of neurohacking from people who figured out effective brain hacks, how to decide on a neurohack, evidence in favor of neurohacking, a discussion on ways to establish new habits, and more.

Part 2 talks about four areas of mental function that you might want to target for a neurohacking intervention. These are executive function (basically, an aspect of brain function that directs attention and filters out irrelevant information); emotional self-regulation; learning and memory; and creativity.

Parts 3 and 4 provide information on neurohacking interventions, including a placebo intervention, curated by Ricker, who has personally tested them all. The basic interventions covered in Part 3 include things like exercising to improve mental function; using blue light devices to stay awake or boost cognition; and even the multifaceted cognitive benefits of games. In Part 4, Ricker talks about more advanced means of neurohacking: things like electrical brain stimulation, cognitive enhancement via pharmaceutical means, and even emerging neurotechnologies such as gene editing to make smarter babies.

Part 5 is where Ricker brings it all together. Here, she discusses ideas for many different 15-minute neurohacking experiments. My favorite experiment she mentions — which I’ve informally done myself — is to use blue light to stimulate alertness rather than opt for a cup of coffee. Ricker recommends a blue light device.

Using light to stay awake is one of my favorite hacks. I’ve learned that the screens of my electronic devices emit blue light. In fact, when I am working in the wee hours of the night, I work with my computer screen at a high level of brightness to keep me awake. This works because the bright blue light in the computer screen backlight literally tricks your brain into thinking it is daytime. It’s also why you can’t sleep at night when you’re reading your smartphone.

When I told Ricker about my informal neurohacking experience with my smartphone’s blue light, she astutely pointed out:

“It’s worth noting that the peer-reviewed research on the cognitive enhancement effects of blue light therapy has been conducted using blue light devices, not smartphones. For neurohacking, I’d recommend using [blue light] devices (I bought mine for less than $50). The other reason is that the phone’s lux level (the amount of light coming out) can vary, so you’d likely need an additional device to verify how much is actually coming out at a given moment. On the other hand, there are now blue light apps for the iPhone that claim to control the amount of lux coming out, and they might work, but I just haven’t seen any papers testing this specifically.”

A great book with tons of great neuro-background

We’ve all done neurohacking in some form of another. Making sure we sleep enough to ace a test or road-trip safely; drinking coffee to focus and be more productive; and so on. I’ve never considered any of those things to be a “brain hack,” but after reading this book, I have a new perspective on potential ways I can try to optimize my brain function.

The perspectives Ricker highlights in this book are fascinating. She discusses emerging neurotechnologies like brain implants, the evolution of cognitive data, and even suggests a new framework for data access for cognitive data.

All in all, I recommend Ricker’s book if you’re interested in ways to boost brain function, and are looking for a book packed not only with practical advice, but smart insights into the history and future of neuroscience, neurotechnology, and neuroethics.

You can learn more about Smarter Tomorrow at the publisher’s website or on Amazon.

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