Last February, when I began contemplating a brain-centric story, I was more focused on packing for my annual pilgrimage to St. Barths than on my own mental state. But then all hell broke loose, and I found myself unable to focus at all. My perpetually mild case of monkey mind morphed into full-on quar-brain, and each time I sat down at my desk to write this piece, I would stare listlessly at my screen, or self-soothe by perusing real estate on Zillow. My creative reservoir was as dry as the artisanal baguette I baked during lockdown, my “flow” reduced to the depressing condensation outside my window.
Turns out my brain freeze wasn’t unusual, considering the collective trauma of the past year. Months of fear, grief, loss, uncertainty, and a roller coaster–like news cycle can lead to what author and Flow Genome -Project founder Jamie Wheal calls “micro-PTSD.” Wheal, an expert on performance enhancement, specializes in neuroanthropology, the intersection of culture, biology, and psychology. He usually teaches optimization skills to tech titans, star athletes, and Navy SEALs, but on a recent Sunday afternoon, he agreed to impart some pearls of wisdom to someone whose idea of being in the zone is usually limited to cutting carbs.
In what felt like my own private TED talk, Wheal—whose new book, Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex and Death in a World That’s Lost Its Mind, comes out in April—compared micro-PTSD to atrial fibrillation, and the necessary mental reset to the rhythm-realigning jolt of a set of AED paddles. “Right now, we all have micro-PTSD fibrillation,” he said. “We need the voltage, the whoosh of the paddles—or, in this case, a profound ecstatic experience—so we can reboot.”
I assumed he meant drugs, since he touches on substances like psilocybin, ketamine, and MDMA—all of which have legitimate medical promise—in talks and newsletters. But what he prescribed for me was much easier to obtain, at least from a legal standpoint. “Start with the obvious,” he said. “We can get out of distress by cultivating new, healthy stress. That can be sprint workouts, breathwork, a celebratory dance jam, an intimate experience, an orgasm, hot and cold baths. I mean, the biggest game changers would be dark, cold rooms and more sleep. We’re almost all underslept.” Banish your phone from bed, drink a pint of water upon waking, and don’t look at any screens for the first hour of each day, he advised. And since we’re all craving touch and sensation (and IRL massages are still tricky), he recommended buying a Theragun Pro, a high-end percussive bodywork device that eases muscle tension. “It’s the simplest DIY way to discharge micro-PTSD,” he said.
On the surface, Wheal’s suggestions seemed like a cinch. But since I haven’t sprinted—or slept—since the late ’80s, I was worried my mind might need a less mindful intervention. Envisioning a quick fix in the form of a magic potion or a device that could nudge my noggin back into shape, I rang tech-forward fitness guru Pamela Gold. Pre-Covid, Gold’s Manhattan smart gym, HACKD, was a magnet for time-starved C-suite types drawn to cutting-edge fitness machines that reduce workout and recovery times. She closed the gym during lockdown, but this summer she will open PRTL, a comprehensive wellness center dedicated to both mind and body.
PRTL will be the first place in the country to have Field, an immersive multimedia experience that features a cocoonlike pod equipped with surround sound, LED lights that respond to visual neurofeedback, an ergonomic zero-gravity chair, and an EEG-capturing cap that establishes what your entire brain looks like and how it’s functioning. “You’re going to be able to get into your private pod, put on the cap, and meet your brain,” says Field cofounder Devon White. Depending on a client’s goals, benefits can include stress reduction, increased relaxation, better sleep, more focus, enhanced awareness, and personal insights. A proprietary AI component being introduced later this year keeps learning about your brain in subsequent sessions and will help “train” you to make positive life changes.
As you progress, the experience builds to include lessons with top experts on things like heart rate variability, bodywork, and breath (breath “artist” Sage Rader presides over a particularly engaging segment). But in Field, there’s no quiz after class—the material feeds right back to your brain, “so you learn, Oh, if I do this specific kind of breath, it makes this brain wave happen,” said White. Eventually, clients can learn to produce certain waves on demand, like alpha, which is calm-producing, and gamma, which is associated with recognizing new patterns and with states of euphoria or ecstasy.
Totally sold on the idea of training my brain while my body floats in sybaritic conditions, I asked to be put on a pod wait list. But what about some interim assistance? I knew Wheal was right about upping my workout game. (One possible clue: My Peloton had become a very expensive coatrack.) Clinical studies have found that physical activity appears to be beneficial for the brain, eliciting both functional and structural changes, and boosting neuroplasticity—or the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself for better learning, memory, and cognitive function.
Results from my own decidedly nonclinical study—the Covid Cushion Effect—were almost as conclusive: My lack of activity and poor food choices during isolation were adding padding to my waistline, and no doubt contributing to my funk. I sought diet advice from Max Lugavere, the author of Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life. Along with dark, leafy greens and collagen-filled foods like chicken drumsticks, he recommended eating foods rich in fat-soluble antioxidants and carotenoids. “The brain is constructed largely of a particularly damage-prone type of fat,” he told me. Lugavere’s food of choice: fatty fish, especially wild salmon, which is high in astaxanthin and DHA fat, one of the most important structural building blocks of the brain. “I also try to eat a lot of ikura [salmon roe] sushi,” he said. “It contains a unique chemical form of DHA that, for some people, might be more easily absorbed into the brain.”
Hunger pangs and a sudden craving for Nobu takeout made me forget to ask Lugavere where he stands on nootropics, nutrients purported to help the brain’s neurotransmitters work more efficiently. I wasn’t sure he would approve of my newest ingestible obsession: Formula, a customized regimen meant to enhance productivity and focus. Based on how you answer an online questionnaire, you receive four nootropic blends and test-drive each one for six days to see which, if any, provides what company cofounder Adam Greenfeld calls a “measurable, braggable” effect. “When the nootropic is right, you know it,” he said. “You see it in your productivity, feel it in your mood. It’s like this overwhelmingly aha type of moment. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to nootropics, because there are so many variations in neurochemistry.” In the interest of having it all, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I mixed my bespoke batch of potential wonder pills—Clarity, Motivation, Creativity, and Logic—into one big brain-enhancing cocktail. Would I finally write that book? Or end up in the hospital?
While I awaited my pod experience, hoped for a nootropic aha moment, and stuffed myself silly with drumsticks and fish eggs, I decided to revisit online shoe shopping, my favorite prepandemic source of serotonin. But with nowhere to go and no one to impress, I focused on a new kind of accessory: brain-tech wearables. I can now be found sporting a sleek, black Apollo strap around my ankle (think bondage restraint meets Balenciaga-esque house-arrest tracking device), which soothes my ragged nervous system with vibrational touch therapy; a Woojer (a supercool haptic device that uses tactile audio to help me feel music and calming frequencies) around my waist; and a HeartMath clip on my ear that tracks heart rate variability and will hopefully lead me to “physiological coherence.” And call me delusional, but I’m convinced that my Muse 2 brain-sensing meditation headband lends me a certain Gal Gadot vibe. I just hope I don’t lose what little is left of my mind when I see my credit card bill.