NYC's Hottest Club Is Selling 'Designer Brains'
By Leah Prinzivalli |
Imagine the best moments of your life. Maybe it was the adrenaline after a big presentation, the relaxation of a beach vacation or the joy of your wedding day. Then imagine you could wake up and feel that way every morning. According to the founders of Field, a center devoted to “brain optimization” that will open in New York City this winter, it only takes 19 electrodes and some neurological tweaks to get there.
With a combination of neurotechnology and new age philosophy, Field’s founders describe brain optimization as the new frontier of wellness. Devon White, a performance consultant, expert in human behavior and one of the team’s four founding partners, compares neurological treatments to acupuncture. At first, western audiences couldn’t comprehend the benefits of poking their body full of needles. But acupuncture has long been mainstream, and eventually, pulsing magnets to certain parts of your brain will follow. “Most of us don’t have control over our brains—until now,” says White.
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Field has been described as a gym for the brain, a clinic/spa/laboratory hybrid and a luxury cognition center. But instead of deadlifts or massages, the space will offer transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This therapy, which sends electromagnetic pulses into targeted areas of the brain, was first FDA-approved to treat migraines in 2013. In the years since, it’s been approved to treat disorders like PTSD, anxiety and medication-resistant depression. It is the same technology that powers MRI machines, but here it’s channeled into specific sections of the brain to affect activity. At Field, the goal is to turn the practice into a wellness offering. When applied to someone without mental illness, Field claims to turn a normal person into what the team refers to as an “optimized” person: someone free from whatever emotional problems, like stress and anxiety, that may ail them.
Aside from White and his wife Julie, a luxury interior designer, there are (thankfully) MDs involved: psychiatrist Hasan Asif and neuroscientist Aza Mantashashvili. Drs. Asif and Mantashashvili have built their practice around the medical applications of TMS, like treatment for PTSD and schizophrenia. At Field, they will oversee healthy clients who undergo the treatment for what Devon “terms an upgrade of the human operating system,” like downloading the latest iOS for your brain. “We’re aiming to make it 70 degrees and sunny in your head all the time,” he says.
White himself has served as a sort of guinea pig for the wellness applications of TMS. “After one session, I was settled into a state of profound relaxation that was responsive, flexible and ready for whatever situation came my way,” he explains. He also noticed memory improvement, and to his delight, a quicker wit. As he continues to undergo treatment, White says he feels more creative and able to respond faster when making decisions. Taking into account his own “profoundly positive personal results” and the experience of others who’ve tried the treatment, as well as his confidence in the doctors on his team, he’s ready to introduce TMS to the world, or at least the part of the world that can afford it.
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“What I’ve done my whole professional life is elicit those best states from people sans technology,” says Devon, referring to his experience in behavioral consulting for C-suite executives, elite athletes and more. “It’s not an ecstatic state, but for most people it is a sense of deep satisfaction and simply being. That’s a ready state of true flexibility. It allows you to respond quickly and readily and perform at peak to whatever situation comes up.” Other emotions are still allowed in, White assures me. Clients will still feel anger, anxiety and stress, but the treatment is designed to train the brain against undesired innate responses. As an example, imagine the old cliché that a man who buys a Porsche is “compensating for something.” What Field aims to do is systematically remove that insecurity. “Let’s say someone never felt OK in high school, so they grow up to buy a Porsche because they think it’s going to make people like them,” says White. “This technology releases the necessity of doing extraneous things just in order to feel alright.”
The treatment involves a cloth cap peppered with electrodes. At a recent demonstration, White strapped into the cap and shared a visual “heat map” of his brain with a room of journalists and wellness thinkers. Dr. Asif pointed out areas of potential optimization, which would then be targeted via TMS. For Field clients, each session will start with an intake interview about their emotional past and personal goals. A CEO looking to relax may have a different goal than a single mom wants to improve performance at her two jobs, and ideally, the technology can address it all. Much like choosing between a ginger or bee pollen shot at a juice bar, clients will choose from a brain optimization menu of offerings like reduced anxiety or increased creativity. White compares it to a control center, with knobs for happiness, anxiety and more that you can turn up or down. Members will spend a minimum of six weeks fine-tuning their brains with twice-weekly sessions.
Eventually, the goal is “scale in a massive way” and “make wellness accessible for everyone.” But for now, Field is open to “superlative individuals” who can afford the entrance fee. In addition to the upcoming physical location in NYC, the company is planning a 10-day intensive that combines neurological treatments with networking, body work and meditation. The experience costs $25,000 and participants are vetted for more than just money. The spots will be reserved for those with generally good mental health (not bipolar, schizophrenic or suffering from major psychiatric disorders), and, as Devon describes it, “good people.” The New York space also has a membership application process, making Field feel like a SoHo House for wealthy wellness junkies.
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I asked Dr. Clifford Segil, neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in California, to assuage my fears that this type of treatment could accidentally, say, liquefy my brain. He assures me that “brain optimization may be “fringy,” but generally speaking “[the treatment] should be very benign.” Similar—if more intense—than wellness offerings like brain supplements or expensive meditation retreats, brain optimization likely won’t be for everyone and results will vary. At the very least, Dr. Segil contends that the treatment isn’t harmful. Anecdotally, he’s seen a friend benefit from a similar treatment, but overall, he would “discourage patients from obtaining these therapies, because they’re very costly and seldom have I seen them have an lasting benefit.”
“Because we understand so little of the brain, it’s hard to optimize something we don’t know about,” says Dr. Segil. “I don’t think there’s any harm that comes from these things. People should have realistic expectations, and I don’t know what that would be. The data says it works for people who are depressed who have failed treatments with medication. There’s no data to say it helps brain health, there’s no data to say it helps with focus, there’s no data to say it helps with chronic pain or drug and alcohol rehab.”
Devon, however, has no doubt that the treatment will profoundly affect its users. By now, he’s even making special requests to enhance quite specific parts of his own brain, like the sensory motor cortex that he asked Dr. Asif to tweak in order to improve his martial arts skills. But as both the founders and mainstream neurologists would agree, these abilities were likely in him all along. As Julie says, “We’re not changing you into somebody else; we’re finding out who you are fundamentally.”