Those of us who’ve grown up in the Age of Information can hardly recall a time when finding the answer to almost any question wasn’t just a few taps or clicks away. Learning faster with the help of technology was definitely one of our drives. It wasn’t long before even googling was too slow, and the likes of Siri and Alexa surfaced—enabling us to vocally ask our devices questions ranging from “where’s the nearest Starbucks?” to “what year was Leonardo da Vinci born?” (and everything in between).
As countless channels and networks stretched wide open, funneling all of that data globally to billions of consumers, our capacity for processing what we learn began to lag behind the sheer volume of information made available to us. Being the adaptive species we are, we turned our attention to solve a new problem—from what we could learn to our capacity for learning it.
At Humm (and a few competitors), the answer to that is: working memory. With the help of these emerging wearable devices, we are now, biologically, learning faster with the help of technology.
Image from thinkhumm.com
What is Humm's brain stimulation device and how can it help with learning faster?
Humm’s fascinating product is a patch that uses transcranial alternating current stimulation (TACS) to increase the brain waves responsible for our working memory (not to be confused with short or long term memory). What’s exciting about Humm is that its noninvasive, requiring no surgery or electrical current to be applied directly to the brain; in fact, the word “transcranial” actually means “delivered outside the skull.”
It’s also clinically backed. When Humm was in its infancy—an intriguing idea—back in 2012, research was emerging on the efficacy of electrical stimulation for things like risk taking and decision making. Tens of thousands of participants have contributed to clinical research and new medical literature indicating the scientific validity of electrical stimulation for several kinds of cognitive enhancement. A study from Boston University even revealed that clinical trial participants in their 70s executed certain memory tasks as well as their 20-year-old counterparts after a mild electrical neurostimulation.
“Basically [what it’s doing is] replicating a natural electrical pattern that happens in the brain when you’re focused. And that electrical pattern is about how many neurons, how many brain cells are dedicated to an activity, and then also how they’re working together. [So what we’re doing] is we're connecting more neurons in the brain at any time into this circuit, that is a circuit we evolved to do this circuit for focus. What we do with this Humm patch is this really simple, really safe, and really effective way [of tapping into that circuit].” - Iain McIntyre
To appreciate the beauty of the technology, it’s helpful to understand the way our memory functions. Humm’s product presentation site lucidly explains the different kinds of memory, and even offers a quiz to help users better understand it.
- Short term memory - capacity to store a small amount of information in the mind in an active and readily available state for a short period of time
- Long term memory - storage of information for an extended period of time. This type of memory is stable in the sense that it can last for a number of years.
- Working memory - a cognitive system that allows us to temporarily store and process information. It’s often used for learning a new skill, reasoning, and/or decision making behaviors.
Located directly behind your forehead bone is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for some of the mind’s most essential cognitive functions, including problem solving, decision making, and learning. Humm’s technology stimulates this region, resulting in boosted function of theta waves—enhancing communication between different operating centers in the brain. This synchronized dance of neurons is what helps patch wearers spike their working memory and learn faster.
How Iain McIntyre's tACS technology product works
With an anxious waitlist of preorders and thousands signing up for a highly anticipated beta testing program, Humm’s patches are set for an official rollout of 2022.
The product is a slim, gray, and fairly small patch in the shape of a rectangle with rounded edges. It’s texture appears to be something like cotton on the exterior-facing side, with a breathable jersey-like material and two smooth pads on the side that touches the wearer’s forehead. The patch will also interact with a connected app that provides users with key performance insights. Sign me up!
The slim, un-intimidating design is the result of rigorous iterations; initial versions of the product took the form of a headset (originally called the Edge)—a design that was forfeited after user-testing indicated the device didn’t meet a few core criteria of the product vision, including ease of use and comfort.
The semi-reusable patches are also cost effective, marketed as “the same as a cup of coffee” for one 15 minute session.
Similar firms and competing technologies to Humm
You may have heard of Neuralink, Elon Musk’s nanotechnology company that’s working to connect humans with computers through high performance brain machine interfaces. Revolutionary, such technology is also very expensive and considered invasive (it involves a surgical procedure to implant hardware deep in the brain). It’s also more difficult to recruit participants for these complex clinical trials—the procedure is understandably intimidating and requires the presence of a trained medical professional. This approach is being evaluated for treatment of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's, Major Depression, and several other mental conditions.
"I'm one of the people who believes that none of us are competing until [what we're doing] has saturated the market. But also more fundamentally, the stuff that Elon Musk and his company are working on are the kind of thing that will have a real consumer impact maybe in 20 years, but probably longer, because it's about doing brain surgery (and brain surgery sucks). What we're doing at Humm today is trying to help people today, and that's kind of the essence of this democratization. I think what they're doing is equally if not more important, because they're trying to help really sick people with conditions that require brain surgery and really high technology, whereas what we're doing is helping people in the every day get these modest benefits that have a massive impact on their lives...I don't think that we're competing; I think the fact that we're both educating people about how the brain works, and both pulling really smart creative people into an industry to help people with this technology, is more that we're collaborating than anything."
Neuralink's technology is certainly...mind boggling to think about, and will likely be transformative in healthcare. But other firms are looking to deliver the benefits of electrical stimulation for a more practical and day-to-day use case. One example involves the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation technology (TAS), which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. TMS has been evaluated by the FDA for treatment of depression and OCD, and has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. Unfortunately, the equipment required for TAS is costly and bulky; it involves a fridge-sized stimulator, a large mechanical arm, a coil connected to the stimulator, and more.
What sets apart Transcranial Alternating Current Current Stimulation (tACS), the technology used by Humm, is that it involves only a very gentle, low frequency electrical current (Humm’s is 6Htz) and has minimally reported, mild side-effects. It’s also portable, with equipment able to fit in a shoebox and a light stimulator that can be as small as a mobile phone. The electrodes are only in contact with the surface of the scalp through a cordless device, enabling the wearer to move (and even walk) during the session.
Some companies using tACS include:
- BrainCo looking to improve learning through stimulation
- Halo Neuroscience
- Kernel (examining science’s ability to treat depression)
- Flow (also examining the science’s ability to treat depression)
- Neuros Medical to treat chronic pain
The Humm Difference
Humm isn’t the first company to hook eager industry followers with a breakthrough technology and an exciting promise. But Humm’s product wasn’t developed overnight, and refreshingly, it’s backed by some serious research—and more than just a few years of it.
“We know that it works, because when we get people to sit down and play behavioral testing games, or cognitive batteries, we can measure that their performance improves. And then we actually give it to people in the real world, take out to learn something new, like a new language, or in their workplace, when they’re just trying to perform at their best, and we can see these effects, that they measure in the cognitive batteries—measure in the lab rather, in their real lives…which is really exciting.”
When we spoke with Iain on The Innovation Cookbook, it was clear that his interest and passion for biohacking was personal. He cited books like Michael Pollan’s Caffeine, and discussed with us how sleep hygiene, exercise, human interaction, and hours spent in daylight are all variables in the complex neuroscience equation that calculates our happiness and ability to be productive.
It was particularly interesting to hear him describe Humm in comparison to caffeine.
“It’s a better version of caffeine—is kind of how I think about Humm. It’s not that it’s a stronger effect…it’s actually quite a different effect [to something like caffeine], but it’s more targeted, it’s more precise, and it’s more customized.”
Iain also explained how coffee’s influence on the brain is chemical, meaning it can’t be turned off at will. Many people are looking to ‘turn on’ focus for specific blocks of time in their day, which might even be late at night. With the help of a temporary electrical signal, it is now possible for such individuals to focus, even late at night, without having to drink a late night coffee and feel wired for longer than necessary—or deal with the subsequent energy fluctuations.
Humm's technology, from lab to market
The team at Humm is comprised of innovators from various disciplines—including medicine, engineering, and of course, neuroscience. It even has a NASA intern aboard its ship. Humm explains that its team is united by a passion for enabling people to lead better lives. They join other tech experts in the belief that human biology is “the next frontier of technological innovation.”
But Humm’s product has evolved quite a bit from its earliest days in 2012. The product has undergone a complete redesign, rigorous user testing, a headquarter relocation, and a soon-to-be beta testing initiative. As previously referenced, the initial product was set to be a headset called Edge—a device that performed the same function as the patch, and achieved the same results in clinical research. However Humm’s user testing revealed a lot about both the product design and its intended user. The headset didn’t meet their criteria of safety/comfort, as many testers maintained that the headset looked scary or intimidating, and wasn’t comfortable. The headset also didn’t meet Humm’s ease of use standard, because it needed too much gear and users felt they couldn’t be mobile with the device.
The team also had to make decisions around the device being a one-time purchase at a higher price point vs something that needed to be periodically replaced for a lower price point. They logic’d that with unfamiliar technology, people would be more comfortable with trying it first at minimal financial risk.
Humm purported that the device would be well-received by a young audience (20-30) due to a general willingness among young people to experiment with emerging technologies. They were surprised to find in testing that a more suitable demographic was people aged 40+. Although young people did respond positively to the technology, the older group actually used Humm more frequently and loved it even more than their counterparts—perhaps due to a more eminent decline in working memory, among other things.
The team spent years developing the product further, focusing on easy accessibility, convenience, lifestyle practicality, safety, and close adherence to the science that makes Humm effective—resulting in a single use patch that, when worn for 15 minutes, yields 90 minutes of improvement to working memory and enhances focus and concentration. The patches will be sold in bundles, so users can enjoy multiple learning sessions per purchase.
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Improving cognitive performance through technology | Conclusion
We live in a world that’s connected by light speed. We’ve created machines that can think much faster than us. But we also have a new era of large scale problems to tackle. Technology that enhances cognition looks to be an optimistic tool for building a better future—one that uses resources more efficiently, creatively reimagines our infrastructure, and better utilizes the largely untapped, unique talents of the world’s individuals to ideate, design, and deploy those solutions.
To leave you with a final thought, I’ll divert to a comment Iain made during our conversation on The Innovation Cookbook.
“The thing that will make you successful in the world of tomorrow, professionally, is not how good you are at any one thing, but how quickly you can learn and adapt.”