The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the global mental health crisis, causing more people to experience burnout, depression, and isolation. Aside from therapy and medicines, companies are investigating ways people can manage their moods, improve their focus, and sleep better. Novel devices, drugs, and beverages are emerging to help consumers escape their anxieties and enhance productivity.
Altered states context
The demand for better mental health treatment rose in 2021, according to an American Psychological Association (APA) poll. Providers were overbooked, waitlists expanded, and individuals struggled with anxiety disorders, depression, and loneliness. Some psychologists have categorized the COVID-19 pandemic-related mental health crisis as collective trauma. However, these cognitive illnesses were not just driven by the pandemic. Modern technology contributed considerably to the decreased ability of people to focus. Ironically, while so many productivity-oriented apps and devices are available, people are becoming less motivated to study or work.
Because of fluctuating moods and emotions, consumers increasingly seek altered states, either from devices or from food and drugs. Some companies are trying to leverage this interest by developing neuroenhancement tools. Neuroenhancement includes various interventions, such as highly caffeinated beverages, legal drugs like nicotine, and cutting-edge technologies like non-invasive brain stimulations (NIBS).
A study published in Clinical Neurophysiology Practice determined that repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and low-intensity electric stimulation (tES) can impact various brain functions in people. These functions include perception, cognition, mood, and motor activities.
Startups have invested in multiple neuroenhancement devices using electroencephalogram (EEG) technology. These devices include headsets and headbands that directly monitor and influence brain activity. An example is brain training neurotechnology company Sens.ai. In December 2021, the firm surpassed its $650,000 USD target on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. Sens.ai is a consumer brain training product that works alongside a smartphone or tablet app to deliver more than 20 learning programs. The headset includes comfortable; all-day wear EEG electrodes with clinical-grade neurofeedback, specialized LEDs for light therapy, a heart-rate monitor, Bluetooth sound connectivity to smartphones and tablets, and an audio-in jack. Users can select various modules, which they may watch in 20 minutes or as part of a greater mission. These missions are expert-designed multi-week courses.
Meanwhile, some companies are exploring non-device neuroenhancers, such as Kin Euphorics. The firm, founded by supermodel Bella Hadid, offers alcohol-free drinks that target particular moods. Lightwave helps consumers find “inner peace,” Kin Spritz gives “social energy,” and Dream Light delivers “deep sleep.” Kin’s newest flavor is called Bloom which “unlocks heart-opening joy any time of day.” According to its marketers, the beverages are designed to replace alcohol and caffeine and reduce stress and anxiety without jitters and hangovers. However, none of the products’ claims (or their components) have been authorized or recommended by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Implications of altered states
Wider implications of altered states may include:
- Increasing research on the long-term effects of NIBS, including the ethical issues that can arise from using devices to improve brain and motor performance.
- Governments strictly monitoring these neuroenhancement products and services for any addiction triggers.
- Increased investments in EEG and pulse-based devices in the medical wearable and gaming industries. Particular professions and sports (e.g., e-sports) that require enhanced focus and reaction times may benefit from these devices.
- Companies increasingly creating non-alcoholic drinks with mood-altering and psychedelic components. However, these drinks might be subjected to strict scrutiny by the FDA.
- Mental health providers and neurotech firms developing devices that target particular conditions.
Questions to comment on
- How might altered state-focused devices and beverages further influence people's everyday lives?
- What are the other potential risks of altered state technologies?