Biohacking – DIY of the future

Science fiction loves exploring the idea of upgraded humanity.  For example, some characters have superhuman strength and defense abilities due to mechanical exoskeletons, like Tony Stark in Iron Man, or Matt Damon’s character in Elysium. Some modifications improve memory, as in the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You, while some help you forget, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, a growing movement of biohackers – part DIY self-improvement enthusiasts, part mad scientists- are blurring  the line between science fact and science fiction. They conduct experiments hoping to unearth our human potential by upgrading ourselves to be better, faster, and stronger.

Some biohackers take nootropics, a class of cognitive enhancing supplements which are used to improve focus, memory, and intelligence. The extensive list here includes everything from ritalin, caffeine, and marijuana, to some substances that I have never heard of, such as Huperzine A and Centrophenoxine. I personally would not suggest engaging in these so-called “smart drugs”, because if a cognitive supplement actually had all the benefits they claim to have, and were safe to use, it would be well documented with scientific research. That being said, I do rely on caffeine about 3 times a day.

At first, the biohacking movement seems diverse, largely dependent on the individual’s area of interest. There is a subculture called Grinder (not related to the one you’re thinking of) where people try to improve their bodies by implanting devices that measure body temperature, or vibrate when facing north, or by injecting LEDs under the skin, to mimic the natural process of bioluminescence.

LED implant, Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you would rather not have LED lights surgically inserted under your skin, you can opt for a Firefly tattoo, or more officially, a sub-dermal tritium lighting implant, which uses the decay of radioactive tritium gas to make a glowing light under your skin. You might be hesitant to put a radioactive glowing substance in your body, but don’t worry, they make it safe by giving it a special coating of lead oxide glass.  You get to choose from a wide range of colors, but the implant itself if just a small rectangle of light. It’s easy to imagine more personalized designs in the future. Firefly implants start at $99, but you may want to splurge on the local anesthetic, an extra $35.

What’s the point of all this, you may ask? Some biohackers do it because they want to improve the human condition, or because it pushes the edge of what’s possible. Some do it simply because they want to glow in the dark.  Biohacking modifications are frequently dangerous, usually untested, and often not approved by ethical review boards. That being said, if you are interested in this movement, you don’t have to go all out right away. Biohacking doesn’t have to be extreme. For example, wearing a Fitbit allows you to collect biometric data on the number of  hours you sleep, the steps you take, and your heart rate. The great thing about biohacking is that it’s bringing futuristic science out of the movies and into our homes, and generating interest among everyday people about what the future (and present) of humanity could be. 

3 Responses to “Biohacking – DIY of the future”

  1. Melissa Yoon says:

    Seems a bit too freaky for me! It would make me anxious to have weird gadgets glowing underneath my skin. I’d probably rather they stay in the realm of science fiction movies.

  2. Michelle Quach says:

    Whoah and wow – the ideas you have presented here simultaneously fascinate and irk me! It also reminded me of the Hindu festival Thaipusam where worshippers pierce their skin with needles and hooks – or people walking on hot coals. I guess people have always tested the limits of the human body through time. The only difference is that we now have (cheap-ish and open source) access to high tech gadgets and drugs to incorporate into the experiment…

  3. Paige Druce says:

    What a great piece! There really is a spectrum to biohacking, from something as simple and commonly used as a fitbit (I never thought about them like this), to a subculture of people who implant devices to mimic bioluminescence. What fascinating area of science!