Neurosignaling for the Masses? What I Think About Thync
Thync is a new consumer device and app that hopes to help the average person better control their emotional energy state. The company claims the device allows a user to choose between two mood states: more energized and focused (for increasing attention), or more relaxed and calm (for decreasing stress).
The current version of the Thync device uses modulated transcranial direct current stimulation, or what founder W. Jamie Tyler likes to refer to as just transcranial electrical stimulation (TES). Using a specific wavelength, new proprietary electrodes, and exact placement, Thync believes it can help moderate your moods.
So what do I think about Thync? Does it really have the potential to affect our mood?
As regular readers of World of Psychology know, I tend to be a bit skeptical about cognitive training apps. The line between a medical device and something meant to help improve your everyday cognitive or emotional states seems like a fuzzy one, so I want to see the app or device demonstrate a clear benefit above and beyond placebo. And one that generalizes to everyday activities (not just a specific app or laboratory test). And one that has published research to back it up.
Neurosignaling is using the brain’s internal signals (or waveforms) to help you better understand your cognitive or emotional state. Biofeedback is probably the best-understood, oldest intervention method of neurosignaling, where a person is hooked up to electrodes which read electrical and other signals from your brain and skin.
Placebo is a High Bar to Clear
It’s a high bar to clear, and I don’t know of any brain training companies who’ve yet got there.
The challenge is that if you’ve invested your time and money into something — anything — chances are you’re going to believe it’s going to help you. And guess what? The research shows that time and time again, that belief is a very powerful thing. It leads to beneficial changes in your mood and functioning. Even if you were given nothing more powerful than a pill full of sugar.
Some researchers remain naive or under-estimate the power of the placebo effect. When they start doing research and start comparing their active treatment to placebo, they sometimes come away from the study feeling like, “Whoa. I didn’t realize that people’s intent to get better is so powerful!” Drug companies have been grappling with this issue for decades — and it’s a gold standard for a reason.
Does Thync Overcome the Placebo Effect?
You buy some gear and an app and — yes, sorry — you’ve already set yourself up for a placebo effect.
Thync, however, may be finally something that’s different. It’s not a brain training game or app, but rather a brand new consumer device we haven’t seen much of yet. Using proprietary sensors developed specifically for this application, you place a sensor (electrode) behind your ear and one on your temple (for “energy;” “calm” sensor placement is a little different). You then tell the app what kind of “vibe” (or mood state) you want — to feel more calm, or to feel more energy.
After the 12 to 20 minute application finishes, you should start to feel the effects of whichever state you selected.
I haven’t yet tried the device,1 but spoke to Thync’s founder, Dr. W. Jamie Tyler about how it works and what kind of data he has to show it works better than a placebo. Tyler hasn’t yet published any of the research the company has collected over the years in iterating the technology behind the device, but plans on doing so over the next year or so. So take everything here with a healthy grain of salt. A for-profit company that wants people to buy its device is going to say, “Of course it works! It works great!!”
The company, which has 6 neuroscientists working for it, is using well-understood theories and builds upon the existing decades’ old TES research foundation. But it innovates in the types of electrodes it uses, the wavelength it uses for the electrical impulses, and the electrode placement. The simplicity of the app makes it easy for anyone to use.
The company is running through an agile design process that tests modifications in its consumer device with small group experiments consistent of 20-30 people. Each time they make a significant enough change to the device or app, they run another internal experiment. Tyler estimates this process has helped them test over 4,000 subjects already.
But Does Thync Work?
Honestly? I won’t be convinced until I see peer-reviewed published research in a mainstream journal. I think it’s easy for those working closely with a device or app to see what they want to see in the data, or alter the statistics in such a way to show positive results.
But Tyler is optimistic about the results:
One thing we found is that the best way to assay what’s happening is just to ask people how they feel, then you compare that to sham control experiments. That’s both within subjects and between subject designs.
What we’ve found is that now about 75 to 80 percent of the people feel an effect that’s significantly stronger than the sham Vibe — we call them “Vibes.” We have two different ones. There’s a Calm Vibe and an Energy Vibe.
But Tyler thinks it’s even better than the subjective experience that the participants report they feel (which is also the most impacted by the placebo effect). Tyler said:
We ran a series of experiments where we artificially induced stress in the laboratory using a classical peer conditioning paradigm.
What we do is, during that paradigm we monitor heart rate, heart rate variability, pupil, pupillometry, pupil dilation, eye tracking, facial expression analysis, galvanic skin response, subjective data, and we also collect saliva at several different time points throughout the experiment, pre and post.
What we found is that we can suppress the sympathetic drive that occurs during experimentally induced stress. What we do is we blunt the changes in galvanic skin response, we suppress the changes that happen in heart rate variability.
For me, here’s the most compelling part. When we look at the saliva, we send the saliva out and we have someone who has the gold standard in saliva analysis — a different company — to analyze it. This is all in a blinded fashion. What we found is there’s a significant reduction in alpha amylase activity, and there’s suppression in cortisol.
Really what we’re doing, effectively […] is we’re modulating the balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity. For the Calm Vibe, we actually suppress sympathetic tone and increase parasympathetic drive. For the Relax Vibe, it’s the opposite.
If participants in the experiments can’t determine the difference between a real treatment and the sham treatment (placebo), then they’ve got something. Tyler explained that in the sham treatment, the “same device goes on every individual. And when we run a sham experiment, we actually use a waveform that induces sensations, but it’s not an effective waveform that we’ve found to modulate arousal.” In other words, they’re getting the exact same treatment — just one that the company hasn’t found to be effective for anything.
What Do Others Think About Thync?
There were a lot of journalists at the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a few weeks ago when Thync demonstrated its device. The company allowed journalists to try the prototype device, and write up their results.
Naturally, this was more of a publicity stunt than anything of value. Some people felt an improved mood, while others did not. Sadly most journalists recycled information from the company’s own news release and their own subjective experience, which left most readers none the wiser.
The real value will come when the company spends the time to publish a study or two about its device’s safety and efficacy. When such studies become available, then we’ll know whether Thync really is effective, or just a consumer device that plays into people’s expectations (and the placebo effect).
In speaking with Tyler, however, I came away with the sense that here was a researcher who seemed to understand and appreciate the deficiencies in the research literature and devices typically used to produce these kinds of effects. He built a company that truly appears to have potential to help people change their moods. I remain optimistic about the company’s outlook — assuming the research eventually sees the light of day.2
- To be clear, I have neither tried the device, nor have any interests in it (financial or otherwise). I was just intrigued by the news stories about it, which looked like something completely different than the usual brain training mumbo-jumbo. [↩]
- Without supporting published research, I personally wouldn’t bother buying such a device. The placebo effect is just too powerful. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2018). Neurosignaling for the Masses? What I Think About Thync. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/neurosignaling-for-the-masses-what-i-think-about-thync/