I tried the $6,000 Sonal device from Wave Neuroscience

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It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m about to have my brain scanned.

I’m at The Well, a wellness center in Manhattan that looks like a cross between a posh cafe and a Goop store. It looks like the kind of place that sells Himalayan salt lamps, essential oils and maybe also cryotherapy or floating pods in the back.

Inside, I meet a PR manager, also named Michelle, who works for Wave Neuroscience, the company that invited me to have my brain scanned. According to the press kit she sent me, Wave Neuro has developed a “Personal Braincare Device” and brain scan that could answer questions as pertinent to the workplace as: “Is it that this micromanager is just wired that way? and “How can you adapt your work habits to better suit your brain?”

Michelle leads me through an underpass with a wall covered in geodes and into a small room that looks like a doctor’s exam room, but with spa lighting. A Wave Neuro employee, Jay, dressed in a blue lab coat, waits inside. On the examination table, I see equipment that I later learn is designed for quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) and electrocardiogram (EKG) testing.

Jay puts the EEG machine on my head and attaches sticky wires for the ECG to my chest. He fiddles with the buttons, tightening them so the device fits my skull perfectly. Then he orders me to sit with my eyes closed for 10 minutes while the EEG scans my brain.

“Do I have to think of anything specific? I ask. “No,” he said. “Do not meditate and fall asleep.” According to Jay, very good meditators can disturb the results of the analysis. I promise not to meditate. Then I remember that I haven’t had my morning coffee yet, and I’m going to stay awake myself.

The analysis lasts 10 minutes.Photos: Michelle Ma/Protocol

We sit in complicit silence for 10 minutes; when it’s over, he removes the device from my head, and I’m brought back above the ground. Alex Ring, the company’s director of applied science, is waiting for me in the coffee section of the wellness area. In front of him is a laptop with the results of my brain scan. Next to us is the Sonal machine, the main attraction of the day.

Before going any further, it would be helpful to understand how this is all supposed to work: QEEG and ECG are standard tests commonly used in medical settings around the world to measure electrical signals in the brain and heart. The Sonal machine on the table in front of us is an exclusive Wave Neuro device that claims to use “advanced, non-invasive technology that reshapes your brain waves to effectively improve your brain health for overall well-being.” After the initial brain scan, Wave Neuro generates a one-page summary that interprets your brainwave recording against people of a similar age and gender.

This report is used to prescribe a course of action to improve brain function using the Sonal device, typically with “brain stimulation” sessions that take place for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for about a month. Wave Neuro claims that these treatments can improve sleep, mood, and concentration.

It’s time to look at my results. First, Ring shows me my brainwaves on his laptop screen. As an untrained brain scan reader, I have no idea what I’m looking at. They look like ECG lines that track heart activity, but for my brain. Then it displays the one-page PDF summary.

The highest number I see at the top is my “Brainwave Synchrony Score” of 77.27%. Then, below that, some other numbers, including my brain speed (10.47Hz) and its optimal range (11-12Hz). (I think back to the coffee I missed that morning. Could that have influenced my score? No, he reassures me.)

The most interesting part is my “Performance Summary”. According to Wave Neuro’s summary of my brain scan, my strengths include “superior processing skills [and] ability to concentrate under pressure” as well as “cognitive flexibility”. My weaknesses, kindly presented as ‘opportunities’, include ‘potential for improved stress management’ and ‘improved self-reflection’.

Ring shows the shape of my brain waves and what it calls alpha and beta activity. Alpha waves are slower and larger and generally correspond to a relaxed state, while beta waves are smaller and faster and are associated with concentration and intellectual activity.

“What would you like to see in someone who is a CEO?” I ask.

In general, he explains, CEOs have high levels of beta activity. “It’s very hard for them to slow down,” he says, because “they have to keep up with every part of the business.” But they still want a good amount of alpha because they need to be able to stop and listen. “So a profile similar to yours,” he said, looking at me.

I ask him, based on my results, what kind of job he thinks I would be suited for.

According to my scan, I have a brain that is “really flexible,” he says. “There are people who are definitely engineers, right? And then there are people who absolutely shouldn’t be engineers, so to speak,” he adds.

I keep peppering him with questions. What would an engineer’s brain look like? That of an artist? What about a business leader? His answers are measured. Looking for leaders with only one type of brain would be detrimental to the corporate culture: “You want a diversity of brain and thinking styles,” he says. And people who aren’t “built” to be engineers and end up working in engineering “are going to bring in new perspectives”, so it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole someone based on the strengths and weaknesses of their brain.

Screenshot of Wave Neuro results

The brain scan results put my synchrony score at 77.27%.Image: Neuro Wave

I ask him if he sees a future where companies use brain scans as an assessment, to screen job candidates and, say, only hire people with scores above 80%. “Have you heard of the movie ‘Gattaca?'” he asks. I nod. “It’s my favorite movie,” he said seriously.

Ring tells me that it’s absolutely not the company’s goal to replicate the “Gattaca” scenario: a dystopian future of eugenics-driven genetic discrimination. In the film, Ethan Hawke plays protagonist Vincent Freeman, an “invalid” person who is relegated to a menial job cleaning offices despite his dreams of working in space travel due to his genetic makeup.

The real purpose of Wave Neuro, according to Director of Strategic Relations Spencer Vigoren, is lofty: to “democratize brain care,” make devices and tests once reserved for the medical community accessible to as many people as possible, and provide an understandable summary and actionable brain for any curious layman who is willing to shell out for it. Analysis is just the beginning. The Sonal is the star of the show, with the potential to change people’s brains and improve their lives permanently, he says.

Ring’s brainwave sync score is in the 80s, he tells me. Before going through the Sonal treatment, it was lower. Is the goal to increase this score? “Yes,” he said. I ask what it means for his brain to have a higher score.

He says that, for him personally, it means he can concentrate better. He has a one-and-a-half-year-old boy at home, and his wife frequently jokingly refers to his “brain daddy” as a consequence of not getting enough sleep for six months. After using the Sonal, he says, “I feel better than before.”

Here’s the kicker: The device itself costs $6,000. Vigoren tells me he sees a future in which companies purchase the device for their employees to make them “more easily able to focus” as well as improve their interactions with co-workers. According to him, Wave Neuro already works with “a few companies in Washington that make software” whose engineers don’t sleep well. “From a corporate wellness management perspective, it’s a very good app,” says Vigoren.

I ask which specific companies, and he refuses to name them. According to him, so far they have pre-sold about a thousand Sonal devices.

Wave Neuro treatments and the Sonal device itself are not FDA approved medical devices. The company’s terms and conditions page is littered with qualifications: users should not interpret, rely on, or interpret the EEG report as providing medical advice. The company makes no representation that Sonal will provide therapeutic benefits, and it is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition. It is simply “a wellness device intended to encourage and inform healthy lifestyle choices”.

I think of all the expensive and noble proposals that have arisen over the years aimed at that ever elusive goal: well-being. What is well-being? Is it a substitute for mental and physical health? Is it something that can be achieved, or is it just a funnel for our modern anxieties, our unfulfilled desires for improvement, optimization, and transportation to an unreachable destination?

Time will tell, but for now my brainwave synchronization score will remain at a perfectly adequate level of 77.27%. But at least I still have the makings of a CEO, or so I’ve been told.

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