Several weeks back, I stumbled across a short article about a new music-listening device called Nervana. It zaps electrical signals into your ears, allegedly unleashing enough “fun brain compounds” to make you enjoy a Justin Bieber song. (That’s right: according to one of the device’s creators, test subjects found that the Bieb’s bubblegum pop correlated with a particularly pleasant stimulation pattern.) For just $299.99, you too can experience nerve-ana (pre-orders started last week). But is there any truth to all the hints that the device will get you, well, sorta stoned?
Recently, I borrowed a pair of Nervana headphones in order to see just how messed up I could get while listening to music at home and then going to a show at Trans-Pecos. To avoid the placebo effect, I did little preliminary research into co-founder Dr. Richard Cartledge’s exciting/dubious promises that they would help me “feel good, relax, and enjoy music on a totally different level.”
Richard, a Boca Raton cardiologist who developed a first-of-its-kind adjustable synthetic heart valve, and his younger brother Daniel, a doctor whose focus is pain management, originally conceived of Nervana as a Sharper Image-worthy “lifestyle device” that had nothing at all to do with music.
“We just wanted to make something that helps people relax and feel good,” Dr. Daniel Cartledge explained when I met him along with the company’s CEO, Ami Brannon, who has a background in hospital administration. “And once we synchronized it to music, we started getting a crazy response from musicians, DJs, people in the music industry, audiophiles– the EDM community seems to have really embraced it.”
The Nervana device supposedly works by acting on the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that “acts as a messenger to the brain,” per Dr. Cartledge. The nerve starts off as two branches and meanders through the body, connecting different organs to the brain. It’s responsible for a number of super important functions like full-body relaxation, control of particular muscles (including those found in the larynx, which are crucial to speech), heart rate, sweating, and certain aspects of digestion.
The Nervana device stimulates the left side of the vagus nerve (the right side is a big no-no for stimulation because it’s connected to the heart) by conducting electricity through the left earbud, which is said to cause “the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain.” The generator– a small, black box with a dial at the center and four buttons that looks something like a first-generation iPod– controls the sensitivity of the device to music. “We wanted people to get a signal whether they’re listening to soft music, like piano or heavy metal, like AC/DC,” Dr. Cartledge said.
Nervana has three distinct functions: The ambient setting is for when “you just want to relax in silence and chill,” Dr. Cartledge said. The recorded music option lets you connect the generator to your iPhone or laptop, and the “microphone” setting picks up on the music or sounds happening around you and relays a signal accordingly. The website promises, “The stimulation output synchronizes with the music’s signal, so the user can feel the music.”
According to the founders, this short-term sensation is different for everyone, and ranges from intense relaxation to stimulation and feeling hyper-focused. The ostensible afterglow is said to extend for a few hours after completing a Nervana session.
It’s not surprising, then, to hear that Nervana might be integrated into live music events, and especially hugely-profitable festivals which are always looking to one-up their competitors with gimmicky stuff like “silent discos” and unusually small children selling nitrous oxide by the balloon-full. “We’ve had a lot of emails from DJs around the world,” Dr. Cartledge said. “They wrote in saying they’d want to do a special show where everybody’s wearing Nervana so everyone will get the same signal.” Brannon chimed in: “The EDM community is very excited about this, we’re getting a lot of festival folks emailing us.”
EDM is not really my scene, so I decided to test Nervana at an event where I’d have access to a variety of different sounds, instruments, rhythms, and vibes– a show at Trans-Pecos featuring back-to-back sets by five experimental musicians including C. Spencer Yeh.
Before going to the show, I tried out the device on Alice Coltrane’s psychedelic jazz album, Journey in Satchidananda, and kept the stimulation intensity level at a conservative range between 5 and 12.
Nervana’s lowest current starts out at 2 and by the time you crank it up to 25, you should really be feeling something. “People who haven’t used it before, they start out with the intensity very low, whereas people like me are used to it, so I’m blasting it as high as it goes,” Dr. Cartledge said.
I had been warned to leave at least ten seconds between intensity upticks. Climbing levels too quickly “can feel unpleasant,” Brannon said. “We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.”
After a few minutes of Coltrane, an overall sensation of warmth appeared, starting at my jawline and radiating outward as I slowly cranked the intensity up. It’s the same sort of flush that I get from drinking too much red wine, too fast, just without the actual redness.
I felt noticeably relaxed, which definitely shouldn’t have been the case given how my day played out. But I sort of forgot all that now, and just listened to the music and waited for more posi sensations to wash over me. Strangely, I found that certain sounds on the record, particularly from bells and sitars, led to a not-so-comfortable sense of sharpness. I wasn’t uncomfortable enough to get rid of the headphones completely, but I was thankful when harps, guitars, and soft drums took over– the feeling they inspired was much less sharp, and more like a gentle pulse.
But I couldn’t help thinking, was I just paying closer attention to the music because I was hooked up to this Nervana thing and waiting to feel something? Or was I legitimately “feeling the music”?
And what exactly did the co-founders mean by “feeling the music,” anyway? I couldn’t get either of the Nervana people I met with to actually say that yes, they were referring to dopamine, and they seem to have phased out direct references to dopamine in their promotional materials. “Neurotransmitters are very difficult to measure in humans,” Brannon said. “We know what the neurotransmitters are, but we can’t say it raises your dopamine level by this much, because that’s something you would have to do a very invasive test to actually test those levels.”
Instead, Cartledge and Brannon said they relied on “our own studies with mood and EEG.” And yet there’s a lot of implication that dopamine is one of those “feel good” chemicals they refer to. The website reads: “Nervana signals electrically stimulate nerves that trigger pleasure-producing neurotransmitters– […] compounds responsible for sensations of happiness, infatuation, and enhanced mood.”
The device makers recommend that people sit for a Nervana session that lasts 15 to 45 minutes, twice daily, “to promote wellness and balance.” The stimulator’s also pitched as a way to “escape reality.” Which is why you should avoid operating heavy machinery and driving while using it or even shortly after. (Also, being pregnant isn’t a great idea.) “Some people shouldn’t even drive after a deep-tissue massage, or acupuncture, or really deep meditation,” Brannon pressed. “You’re just in a super relaxed state.”
In search of this super relaxed state, I popped out the headphones and headed to Trans-Pecos.
When I got to the show, my plan to banish booze for the sake of science completely fell apart. But I refuse to beat myself up too much for drinking, because I managed to keep things classy and had maybe two cans of beer throughout the show (important information for later on). Travis Laplante– a solo musician and collaborator on various projects, including the experimental jazz quartet Little Women– was wailing away on the saxophone. The guy brutalizes his instrument, and in an open forum like this one, he was really going for it. I definitely had to keep the Nervana settings cranked to minimal. Which sort of made me think, was I really experiencing anything beyond physical, zappy, warm, and vaguely urghhh feelings at this point? It seemed like no, not so much.
I’d settled into something like a chill groove by the time Dan Friel– a true DIY veteran of electronic synth-pop who’s been doing the underground-ish show thing in Brooklyn since 2002– played his glowing, spaced-out noise-pop set, hunched over a tangle of wires, light-up synths, and pedals. I took a seat and began to feel actually, maybe, slightly like the equivalent of two hits of a joint into highness. Or maybe just a spliff. Yeah, just a spliff.
Or was it the beer? I’m inclined to say no, because I know exactly what to expect from a reasonable amount of alcohol, and this feeling surpassed that, though not necessarily in a way that I’d say directly correlates to being intoxicated. There was something else behind it, the physical sensation of being relaxed was less bleary and more buzzy.
Next, Sarah Lipstate took the stage with her whirring, understated guitar-led pedal tricks (it’s truly weird stuff, like no other guitar playing I’ve ever heard, a consistent wash of ambient pulses and glitches). While this super calming set left me completely without any razor pricks from the nerve stimulator, it was also understated to the point where I had to keep checking to see if the device was on. The animal that I am, I cranked that baby up to 25, where I felt a sort of grinding sensation in my ear. Ouch. I turned her back down, satisfied with a level 20.
By the time it was drummer Greg’s Fox’s turn (he’s recorded with Liturgy, Horse Lords, and Skeletons, among others), I was ready for that 25 again. And Fox’s precise, powerful yet fluttery drumming certainly helped deliver a more intense, sometimes grinding feeling radiating from the left earbud. (I should note that I’ve never, ever really enjoyed a drum solo on a straight-up drum-kit, but Fox’s abilities are so above any drummer’s I’ve ever seen, that it wasn’t like any other percussion solo effort I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think a drum machine could even come close to the exactitude and speed with which this guy executes his set.) The left earbud was buzzing so hard that it seemed like it was trying to wriggle right out of my ear (I checked– it wasn’t, actually). I sort of liked the intensity, weirdly, though I wasn’t sure how long I should keep this up– it was a little frightening. Like, was it possible my ear could fall off? These physical sensations were strikingly opposed to how I was feeling mentally, which was a consistent looseness coupled with an equally opposite sense of being intensely focused on the music, everything else that I could or should have been thinking about seemed to just fade into the background.
Just as Fox’s performance was winding down, the battery pooped out. And seeing that I’d need a screwdriver to ply my way into the device, I realized my Nervana session was over. At any other time, this might call for some real frustration, or at least a loud growl on my part. But that wasn’t the case here. I sat back, watched the rest of the show, and accepted my fate. Whatever happens, happens for a reason, man. I’ll figure it out tomorrow.
I didn’t really realize how unusual that reaction was until I retraced my steps. Looking back, I remembered that I was also weirdly overjoyed that my friend never showed up to the show. The experience wouldn’t have been the same, I decided– the device made me prefer total, uninterrupted one-on-one engagement with the music. Conversation or even having to look or communicate non-verbally with someone else would have spoiled everything it seemed. I went home, still feeling both elated and at ease, but also questioning the validity of my experience altogether, and went to bed. And then I slept like the dead– dreamless, solid, uninterrupted– and maybe my brain thought I was actually deceased, because I slept through no less than ten alarms and four hours of work. Usually, so much as the vibration of my phone ringing on silent are enough to send me into a violent, who-the-fuck-woke-me-up fury. What’s more, I felt a little spacey, dare I say stupid all day. (I count myself #blessed that it was Friday.)
Was it possible that I was hungover from this Nervana device? Had I zapped my vagus nerve into atrophy? Could I still speak if my larynx was paralyzed? I managed to croak out some sounds– ok, no serious damage, it seemed. Had I just felt the music too hard? Or had all those good vibes permanently transformed me into a posi, inherent-goodness-of-the-world, for lack of a better word– dummy? Only time would tell.
Despite what seemed to be unpleasant side effects from going hard with that thing, to the point of draining the battery, the Nervana people remained adamant that their device is safe. “Vagus nerve stimulation has been done for over 30 years and it’s been safe,” Dr. Cartledge told me.
There are a number of medical devices and therapies that tap into this particular nerve. At NYU’s medical center vagus nerve stimulation therapy, delivered via an implanted device, is being studied as a way to treat epilepsy and other seizure disorders. In fact, many of the breakthroughs (or possible breakthroughs) happening with bioelectronics– an emerging field in medicine that could shake up the way we think about drug treatment (i.e. by eclipsing it altogether)– are centered around stimulating the vagus nerve.
Dr. Cartledge assured me that Nervana, as a recreational device, is not nearly as powerful as the existing medical devices. And anyway, the company claims to have tested their product on “hundreds of adults.” “We have seen no evidence of safety issues, including with continued use,” they insist on their website. Though it should be noted that they were conducting their own tests, which show no indication of independent or peer review, and none of these studies have been long-term (the founders have only been working on Nervana for the last two years). And I did find that overstimulation of the vagus nerve is connected with episodes of fainting– it’s reportedly what caused President George W. Bush to pass out when he choked on a pretzel in 2002 (which, incidentally is not the source of, “These pretzels are making me thirsty“).
I’m more comfortable saying that the physical sensations I experienced at the show were likely a result of the Nervana device– it’s hard to imagine that distinct electric buzzing was a result of placebo. But I’m not so sure about the letting-loose and the weird tunnel-vision focus. Admittedly, I was very much hoping that I would feel something– it was hard to be objective and cold about that. I mean, how amazing would it be if a little black box and a pair of ear buds could do everything that some drugs do, and more, without the added worry of cops, addiction, spending all your money, and scoring a modeling contract with a “Faces of Meth” campaign? (At least one of those things is somewhat lucrative.)
Clearly, a bunch of people agree that, yeah, that would be really amazing. Since launching their Indiegogo campaign last week, Nervana has now raised more than 355 percent of their initial $75,000 goal. Nearly 1,000 people have donated money– ranging from $5 contributions (which somehow qualifies you as a “Nervana enthusiast”) to $279, which includes a pre-order of the product, and $509 for two. So far, more than 500 people have claimed their pre-orders and 13 people have stretched for the two-pack.
Is it worth it? Well, a bag of weed is pretty competitively priced these days, MDMA is regularly consumed by literal children for the price of their lunch allowance, and I won’t even get started on the numerous other options available to anyone with a $20 bill and a death wish. Oh yeah, and last I checked alcohol is still an option.
But more than getting messed up, the creators of Nervana are promoting it as a means of “controlling your own wellness.” Picking up on that theme, Brannon told me, “I think we’re trying to take better care of ourselves overall. But if you can help with that stress level, too, and maintain a positive mood, you sleep better, your blood pressure is more under control, you may have the energy to work out. You may just be so exhausted after work that you think, ‘I just need to go home and have a drink.’ Well, don’t do that. Do a Nervana session.” (It should be noted Nervana is not seeking FDA approval, nor do they make any explicit claims about improving health or curing disease.)
All of this “wellness” talk falls under the umbrella of “lifestyle,” or the marketing idea that is tied to everything from organic food to SoulCycle and juice bars, which relies on the logic that we, as people of an enlightened, hyper-conscious, forward-thinking society deserve to be healthy, skinny, happy, and completely in control of bodies, minds, and lives that extend well beyond 100 years long. And so what if the price is high? That’s just indicative of your commitment to the cause.
But what will happen if even our psychoactive-induced euphoria-outlets can be brought into the “wellness” fold? I can vaguely see a future where the toiling lower classes are inflicted with the pain and ugliness of “regular,” un-enlightened drug use and are largely left for dead without resources or even empathy, while the wealthy have found new, completely legal ways to get high that don’t involve any kind of unwanted side effects and certainly not tooth loss. Oh, wait…
Dr. Cartledge pitched Nervana as a way to control the increase in neurotransmitters that occurs when you’re having an enjoyable experience. “We’re just using science to tweak it and make it happen when we want it to happen.” But is it really control that Nervana is giving to its users? Or is it an illusion?