Can Virtual Meditation Help You Hack Your Consciousness?
Illustration by Noma Bar
The flotation pod is smaller than I'd expected. It's white and round like an egg and, at first glance, seems like it couldn't be any longer than I am tall. Sitting in a tiled treatment room at a day spa in Carroll Gardens, the pod looks incongruous, like someone left an oversize computer mouse in a bathroom.
I'm here, at a place called Lift Floats, to try sensory-deprivation flotation — a Sixties throwback technology, invented by the neuroscientist John C. Lilly (best remembered today as the guy who came up with oddball experiments to study human-dolphin communication), that has lately regained popularity, particularly among athletes and Silicon Valley types. After being shown to the room, I shower, enter the pod naked, and close the lid. I lie back as the pod starts to play gentle music and the faint LED lights bathe the water in colors. It's a relief that the pod seems to be bigger on the inside, like Doctor Who's TARDIS.
These days, my body often seems to announce itself to me through pain: the old metatarsal fracture that didn't heal right, the lower back I take ibuprofen for most days, the trapezius that can tip into spasm if I forget myself and reach for something up high too suddenly. But in this blood-temperature water, where I float thanks to copious amounts of dissolved Epsom salt, I feel none of the familiar pressures, or twinges, or aches. I feel nothing.
If my body in the world is noise, in the tank it's silence. There's not a single muscle I'm conscious of tensing to keep myself upright and my face above water — the salt is supporting all of me. After a couple minutes of goofing off, propelling myself back and forth inside the pod and trying to make waves, I relax and don't move at all. I have an hour in here. As I ease into the buoyancy, I start to lose my sense of my body's relative position and weight — what a neuroscientist would call proprioception. Forgetting my body feels great.
I switch off the music and the light, plunging the pod into darkness. Almost immediately, despite having ingested, prior to my float, nothing stronger than a cup of Earl Grey tea, I start to hallucinate. Vivid colors and patterns, then a series of purple and orange faces, flicker before me.
In this pod, I'm trying to "hack" my consciousness. I'm motivated by a group of people I've been reporting on, who call themselves consciousness hackers. They are, variously, engineers, entrepreneurs, developers, Buddhists, start-up employees, micro-dosers of LSD, graduate students of computer science, and people who speak highly of silent meditation retreats. ("Silence made it easier because there were no personalities.") Almost all associated with the tech industry, and mostly men, consciousness hackers are united by an interest in areas such as affective computing, artificial intelligence, biohacking, the autonomic nervous system, cognitive science, and pharmaceutical research into psychedelic drugs.
If biohacking concerns the relationship between technology and the body, and imagines a future where people use tech and wearables to transform their bodies, consciousness hacking concerns the relationship between technology and the mind. Anyone who has ever gone online or pawed at a smartphone like a lab rat drinking from a cocaine-laced water bottle knows that it can deplete us emotionally, constrict our attention, and enable our worst selves.
"I think the way technology is designed right now, in a lot of ways it works against us," says Mikey Siegel, the San Francisco–based engineer who coined the term consciousness hacking, when we meet at a café a few days after my float. "Technology designers simply are not optimizing for this depth of human need. They're working at a very superficial level. They're focusing on things like productivity and information consumption and entertainment." Siegel takes a sip of his blueberry-cayenne smoothie. "You can spend hundreds of hours on Facebook and feel emptier afterwards than when you started."
When I met Siegel, he was in New York to speak at the opening night of a new consciousness hacking film series at the Rubin Museum, which drew a sold-out crowd. Siegel is the bushy-haired emissary of a movement that first took root in San Francisco's tech community and is sending out tendrils into the wider world. The Bay Area consciousness hacking group Siegel founded in 2014 now boasts more than 3,000 members. New York's has 1,700, and there are now over twenty such groups around the world. There are consciousness hacking panel discussions, participatory workshops, even dating meetups, and some members have taken to calling each other "conscies."
The consciousness hackers are the latest evolution of a strain of California utopianism, part ashram and part Hewlett-Packard. Much as engineers who worked with transistors and circuit boards once trooped out to Werner Erhard's seminars, today's corps of technologists is out finding themselves at meetups, meditation retreats, and (not least of all) on corporate campuses. At Google, the search for oneself and the accoutrements of meditation and "mindfulness" are such a part of the culture that they have birthed a meditation-focused think tank, Chade-Meng Tan's Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.
Siegel is the leading evangelist of the consciousness hacking movement. Short of stature, with intense brown eyes and curly hair, Siegel wears a T-shirt with a quote from Rumi ("You are the universe in ecstatic motion") and a slight beard, as if he's recently found himself too busy to shave. The 34-year-old was raised in the plush Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, the child of parents he describes as "science-secular." "They were good people," he says. "They followed the rules, they were caring. We grew up secular Jewish — we would go to temple on the High Holidays, but I didn't know who God was."
The technologically adept Siegel bounded through UC Santa Cruz, did a stint as an engineer at NASA, and went on to graduate work in robotics at M.I.T.'s Media Lab. At M.I.T., Siegel bought a book on meditation.
It sat on his shelf, barely opened. "I read about two chapters," he says — but upon graduating he went off to live for two months in an ashram in Virginia.
Siegel eventually took a job at Theranos, the now-disgraced start-up that attempted to "innovate" on the blood-testing industry. The company was a chrysalis from which Siegel emerged, after ten months, as a full-time evangelist for the examined life. He quit and embarked on two years of full-time independent research, tracking down anyone he could who had done any work related to consciousness and technology since the 1960s. Then he went back to Silicon Valley to take the natural next step in the karmic progression: making products that will turn ancient practices into wearable tech.
What makes the consciousness hackers different from earlier generations of seekers is that they are the children of a technological age. Much as my float in the isolation tank makes my mind feel clear and my body relaxed, I am distressed to find that the object I reach for first upon getting out is my phone, and the thing I most yearn to do with my phone is to take a selfie to document the state of deep relaxation, to see if it shows somehow in my face. My fingers leave Epsom salt residue on my iPhone.
At one time the solution to this state of mixed distraction and compulsion that may be the default mode of the technological age might have been to unplug. But to a generation that has seen the world change tremendously, and mostly for the better, with the Web, that feels a little like trading in a car because you don't like the color of the taillight.
The solution of the conscies and their fellow travelers, instead, is to plug in. If once meditation and "mindfulness" were viewed in the West as squishy ideas, current research has allowed the modern meditation technologist to quantify their benefits. Over the past two decades, studies have found that mindfulness meditation can have positive impacts on blood pressure, anxiety, mild depression, hot flashes, pre-menstrual symptoms, and markers, such as cortisol, of stress and inflammation.
This means that, from a certain angle, these ancient practices now appear ripe for appification. With varying levels of ambition, Silicon Valley is picking the fruits of the tree of mindfulness.
Illustration by Noma Bar
At its simplest, this includes a raft of meditation-friendly apps and devices. "Can we understand just enough to design a device that will help someone develop the habit of self-awareness and self-care," asks Siegel, "and learn to calm themselves when they're stressed?" Basic products along these lines are already on the market, such as Spire, the wearable device that tracks a user's breathing to reduce stress and improve focus (retail cost: $129.95). For $249, the Muse meditation headset — a model sits under Plexiglas on the counter at Lift Floats — promises to assist users in their meditation. Using the principle of biofeedback, Muse tracks the brain's electrical activity and transforms it into sound. When you are calm, calm music plays. When your mind wanders, the sound of blowing winds starts to creep in, reminding you to focus.
Siegel's own company, Biofluent, has several products in development that work with the body's signals — brain waves, heart rate, respiration, electrical activity in the muscles — to encourage calm and focus. One, HeartSync, can be used by a group. It generates visuals and sounds based on the accordance (or discordance) between each group member's vital signs. As the group syncs up their heartbeats and breathing, the visuals grow more harmonious and complex.
HeartSync, as a shared immersive experience, brings us to another technological frontier that comes up often when talking to people in the consciousness hacking movement: virtual reality. "Virtual reality could supercharge meditation," says Christopher Kelley, a Buddhist scholar and one of the founders of the New York consciousness hacking group. "One of my goals is to design a virtual-reality program for a Buddhist tantra meditation." For thousands of years, monks have used painted mandalas and statues as visualization tools while meditating. "My vision," says Kelley, "is to have a virtual-reality program where you're sitting in a zendo, or a Buddhist temple, and then everyone puts their Oculus Rift on, and we're meditating together and we can create those visualizations together, in three dimensions."
One of those terrific late-summer thunderstorms is raging as I make my way from the subway to NYU on a Monday night. The storm drains are overflowing onto the sidewalks, and despite my umbrella I'm soaked when I reach the Interactive Technology Program, where a consciousness hacking meetup is set to begin. I have come to NYU to see for myself just how sharp the cutting edge of person-machine interaction is. Dan O'Sullivan, the head of the ITP, is one of the leading theoreticians of how people interact with computers. He is not impressed.
"Have you ever asked yourself, what does the computer see when it looks back at you?" O'Sullivan asks later, when we meet in his office. O'Sullivan's space is narrow but full of natural light, thanks to tall windows that give a view of Broadway below. A broken lamp sits on his bookshelf, atop a row of fat books with titles like Physical Computing and Don't Go Back to School. "It sees one eye, one finger. Just recently, with the iPhone, it came to see two fingers." How, then, is a computer or a program supposed to perceive our deeper motivations, our innermost feelings?
At the consciousness hacking meetup at ITP, about forty attendees settle into chairs in an open-plan space also filled with dressmaker's mannequins, drafting tables, and computer monitors. Signs admonish students not to leave the 3-D printer unattended until their job is complete. Ostensibly the evening is devoted to "positive computing," but the main event is really a demonstration by a roboticist and artificial-intelligence researcher named Ben Goertzel, of an "entity" called Sophia.
Sophia is the newest robot made by Goertzel's employer, Hanson Robotics. Her face is covered with "Frubber," a patented, flexible, skinlike silicone the color of a peach. The crown of her head, where a person's hair would be, is a network of wires and sensors. A black Intel RealSense camera protrudes from her torso — where her collarbone would be, if she were a person. Motors under her Frubber are controlled by the computer's artificial-intelligence software; Sophia can make 62 facial expressions, and she chooses which to deploy based on conversational cues. She can identify the people she interacts with thanks to face-recognition software. Her programming gives her the ability to remember everything she has seen and heard, meaning she "learns" from every interaction. Goertzel calls this a personality.
Goertzel plays several videos of himself interacting with Sophia in a laboratory. Sophia's camera eyes appears to register Goertzel as he moves, and she seems to be listening to him as he speaks, but the robot is slow to react and form words, because before responding she has to search the internet for relevant information.
Long pauses elapse between Goertzel talking and Sophia coming up with a response. To a human, the pattern of interaction is unnerving, like someone who waits a beat too long before laughing at a joke. Goertzel asks Sophia a series of questions about the possibility of robot-human telepathy; it's as if he's trying to stump her. Eventually he succeeds and her face goes still. "Reality cannot be detected," she says, in her flat, affectless voice. "Reality cannot be detected."
In a way, it is the robot's most human moment. What can be more human than trying so hard to communicate, and failing at it?
It's easy to look down on the search for shortcuts to mindfulness. (Or "McMindfulness," as Dr. Miles Neale, a Buddhist psychologist and past speaker at a consciousness hacking event, calls it.) The ambitions of the consciousness hacking movement so far may be grandiose, and its achievements underwhelming. But what if the movement is not about a shortcut to the inner truths of meditation so much as a long way around to the truths of community? The virtual-reality meditative space that Kelley envisions may be far, far away — and true artificial intelligence even farther. But the communitarian ethos that once motivated the hippie start-ups of the tech world is much closer.
The tech world has deep links with the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s Bay Area, where both movements originated. Very little of that radical, antiauthoritarian sense of wide-open possibility persists today. Where vestiges of tech's weird, hippie roots do persist is in those fringe domains that are, perhaps deservedly, lampooned by the press: Seasteading, life extension, cryptocurrencies, Burning Man. There is no whiff of the counterculture in the Facebook algorithm. The more time I spent with the consciousness hackers, the more I started to feel that their particular ways of understanding and imagining life through technology represented a return to that older, countercultural ethos.
At NYU, Goertzel was introduced by Todd Gailun, who, with Kelley, leads the New York consciousness hacking group. "Engineers need to take more responsibility for their products' impacts on wellbeing," Gailun said. "Tim Cook says at Apple their product test is, 'Will this product make life better? Does it deserve to exist?' "
At the conscies' meetups I saw people hoping to make products that deserved to exist — and in so doing, it seemed, to prove that their makers deserved to exist too. As I talk to consciousness hackers about wearables and sensors that harvest data from the autonomous nervous system and virtual-reality storytelling, it strikes me that while the tools have changed, human beings and their needs have not. The ethos of the consciousness hacking movement, and the talk of "connection" that responds to our "deepest selves," reflects real problems of community and its absence in our digital world. In these attempts they seemed to find some of the community that I, too, find myself yearning for. And that, too, deserves to exist.
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