It is Wednesday morning, and I am about to have my brain scanned.
I’m at The Well, a wellness center in Manhattan that resembles a cross between a fancy coffee shop and a Goop store. It looks like the kind of place that sells Himalayan salt lamps, essential oils and maybe also has cryotherapy or float pods in the back.
Inside, I meet a PR person, also named Michelle, who works for Wave Neuroscience, the company that invited me to have my brain scanned. According to the press kit she had sent me, Wave Neuro has developed a first-of-its-kind “personal Braincare device” and brain analysis that could answer such relevant workplace questions as, “Is that micromanager just wired that way?” and “How can you adapt your work habits to better fit your brain?”
Michelle leads me through an underground passageway with a wall covered in geodes and into a small room that looks like an exam room at a doctor’s office, but with spa lighting. Waiting inside is a Wave Neuro employee named Jay who’s dressed in blue scrubs. On the exam table I see equipment that I will later learn is designed for quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) and electrocardiogram (EKG) tests.
Jay puts the EEG device on my head and attaches sticky wires for the EKG to my chest. He fiddles with the knobs, tightening them so that the device fits squarely on my skull. Then he instructs me to sit still with my eyes closed for 10 minutes while the EEG scans my brain.
“Should I think about anything specific?” I ask. “No,” he says. “Just don’t meditate, and don’t fall asleep.” According to Jay, really good meditators can mess with the results of the scan. I promise not to meditate. Then I remember I haven’t had my morning coffee yet, and I will myself to stay awake.
The scan takes 10 minutes.Photos: Michelle Ma/Protocol
We sit in a companionable silence for 10 minutes; when it’s over, he takes the device off my head, and I’m led back aboveground. Waiting for me in the coffee shop section of the wellness space is Alex Ring, the company’s director of Applied Sciences. In front of him is a laptop with my brain scan results. Next to us is the Sonal machine, the day’s main attraction.
Before I go any further, it would be useful to understand how this is all supposed to work: QEEG and EKG are standard tests used commonly in medical settings across the world to measure electrical signals in the brain and heart. The Sonal machine on the table in front of us is a proprietary device from Wave Neuro that claims to use “cutting-edge, non-invasive technology that reshapes your brainwaves to effectively improve your brain health for general well-being.” After the initial brain scan, Wave Neuro generates a one-page summary that interprets your brainwave recording compared to people of a similar age and gender.
That 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 these treatments can improve sleep, mood and focus.
It is time to look at my results. First, Ring shows me my brain waves on his laptop screen. As an untrained brain-scan reader, I have no idea what I'm looking at. They look like EKG lines that track heart activity, but for my brain. Then he pulls up the one-page PDF summary.
The biggest number I see up top is my “Brainwave Synchrony Score” of 77.27%. Then, below that, a few other numbers, including my brain’s speed (10.47 Hz) and its optimal range (11 to 12 Hz). (I think again of the coffee that I didn’t have that morning. Could that have influenced my score? No, he reassures me.)
The more interesting part is my “Performance Summary.” According to Wave Neuro’s summary of my brain scan, my strengths include “superior processing skills [and] capability to focus under pressure” as well as “cognitive flexibility.” My weaknesses, kindly framed as “opportunities,” include “potential for enhanced stress management” and “improvements in self-reflection.”
Ring points out the shape of my brain waves and what he 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 want to see in someone who’s a CEO?” I ask.
Generally, he explains, CEOs have high amounts of beta activity. “It’s very difficult for them to slow down,” he says, since “they have to track every part of the business.” But they still want a healthy amount of alpha, because they need to be able to stop and listen. “So a profile similar to yours,” he says, looking back up at me.
I ask him, based on my results, what kind of job he thinks I would be suited for.
Based on my scan, I have a brain that’s “really flexible,” he says. “There are some people who are definitely engineers, right? And then there are some people who definitely should not be engineers, so to speak,” he adds.
I continue peppering him with questions. What would an engineer’s brain look like? An artist’s? What about a corporate leader’s? His answers are measured. To look for leaders with only one kind of brain would be a detriment to corporate culture: “You want a diversity of brain styles and thinking,” he says. And people who aren’t “built” to be engineers and end up working in engineering “are going to bring new perspectives,” so it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole someone based on their brain’s strengths and weaknesses.
The brain scan results put my synchrony score at a 77.27%.Image: Wave Neuro
I ask him if he sees a future where companies use brain scans in an evaluatory capacity, to screen job candidates and, say, only hire people whose scores are over 80%. “Have you heard of the movie ‘Gattaca?’” he asks. I nod. “It’s my favorite movie,” he says, seriously.
Ring tells me it’s absolutely not the company’s objective to replicate the “Gattaca” scenario: a dystopian future of genetic discrimination driven by eugenics. In the film, Ethan Hawke plays protagonist Vincent Freeman, an “in-valid” person who’s relegated to working a menial job cleaning offices despite his dreams of working in space travel due to his genetic makeup.
Wave Neuro’s true goal, according to director of Strategic Relations Spencer Vigoren, is a lofty one: “to democratize brain care,” making devices and tests once reserved for the medical community available for the masses, and providing an understandable, actionable summary of the brain for any curious layperson who is willing to shell out for it. The scan 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 synchrony score is in the 80s, he tells me. Before going through Sonal treatment, it was lower. Is the goal to raise that score? “Yes,” he says. I ask what it means for his brain to have a higher score.
He says that, for him personally, it means that he can focus better. He has a 1.5-year-old boy at home and his wife frequently, jokingly, refers to his “dad brain,” a consequence of not getting adequate sleep for six months. After using the Sonal, he says, “I feel better than I did pre-kid.”
Here’s the kicker: The device itself costs $6,000. Vigoren tells me he sees a future in which companies buy the device for their employees to make them “more easily capable of concentration” as well as to improve their interactions with their co-workers. According to him, Wave Neuro is already working with “a couple of companies in Washington that make software” whose engineers aren’t sleeping well. “From a company wellness management perspective, it’s a really great application,” Vigoren says.
I ask which specific companies, and he refuses to name them. According to him, so far they’ve pre-sold about a thousand Sonal devices.
Wave Neuro’s treatments and the Sonal device itself are not approved by the FDA as medical devices. The company’s Terms and Conditions page is littered with qualifications: Users shouldn’t construe, rely upon or interpret the EEG report as providing any medical advice. The company makes no representations that Sonal will provide any therapeutic benefits, and it’s not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition. It’s simply “a wellness device intended to encourage and inform healthy lifestyle choices.”
I think of all the expensive, lofty propositions that have popped up over the years aimed at this ever-elusive goal: wellness. What is wellness? Is it a stand-in for mental and physical health? Is it something that can be achieved, or is it just a funnel for our modern-day anxieties, our never-satiated desires to improve, optimize and transport ourselves to an unreachable destination?
Time will tell, but for now, my brainwave synchrony score will stay at a perfectly adequate 77.27%. But at least I still have the makings of a CEO, or so I’ve been told.