Back in 1999 I attended a party in San Diego where a guy who had just seen and loved the film The Matrix made it his life’s mission for 20 or 30 long minutes to convince me to see it also. It was a tall task, as movies of the sci-fi/action genre bore me to tears, and I had a strong sense that the tipsy former frat boy trying somewhat desperately to sell me on seeing this particular sci-fi/action flick would be bored to tears by many if not most of the films I enjoy. Nevertheless, I broke down and rented the DVD (or was it VHS?) a few months later. The verdict? I stopped the tape less than halfway through, bored to tears.
Although I can never have that lost hour of my life back, I learned an important lesson from the experience, which is to hold a firm line on dubious media recommendations—which is why I will never listen to Andrew Huberman’s podcast, no matter how many people tell me I should. True, I can’t know for sure I would hate it without listening, but that’s no reason to listen. There’s a difference between being open to new things and feeling obligated to act on every media recommendation tossed your way. I can think of many things I might do in an hour that I’m 100 percent certain would enrich me; to risk an hour on Huberman would require that I sacrifice this guarantee. No thanks.
I pass no judgment on Huberman personally—I’m just trying to save you from him. Based on the conversations I’ve had with those bent on winning me over to him, I get the idea that he’s the world’s most respectable biohacker. Now, for all I know, The Matrix is history’s greatest sci-fi action movie, but it’s still a sci-fi/action movie, and it’s garbage. Similarly, a respectable version of biohacking is still biohacking, and biohacking, in my view, is a kind of evidence-based snake oil, a reductionistic gamification of healthy living that is rooted in, and promulgates, a kind of intellectual myopia compounded by a seemingly willful suspension of common sense and that steers people away from the tried-and-true methods favored by people who successfully self-regulate their way to wellness and therefore take no interest in biohacking.
An example of a Huberman hack is waiting 90 to 120 minutes after waking to drink coffee, a practice he recommends on the basis of the fact that hormone levels are not optimized for caffeine intake first thing in the morning. Two major flaws vitiate this advice. The first is that most of the research demonstrating health benefits associated with regular coffee drinking has been uncontrolled, meaning the subjects are drinking their coffee whenever they please. This makes Huberman’s hack a solution in search of a problem. The second flaw is that waiting 90 to 120 minutes to drink coffee comes at a cost to those of us who enjoy drinking it as soon as we wake and who, with its aid, make great use of that first part of the day. (Indeed, I’m writing these very words less than 60 minutes after leaving bed, alert, focused, and happy, with a cup of joe at might right hand.) There’s something almost inhuman about prioritizing microscopic niceties of adenosine and cortisol levels above the conscious experience of exercising a preference, enjoying it, and participating in a comforting and familiar morning ritual.
Intelligence devoid of common sense is indistinguishable from stupidity.
Whether or not Huberman’s coffee hack “works” is beside the point. Plenty of individual biohacks do more or less what they’re supposed to do. But few biohackers are content with one or two biohacks. The harm comes when people invest so much interest in biohacks that it becomes an ingrained mentality. I call this mentality the “always searching” mindset, and it is insidious, impeding health and wellness in ways that those infected with it don’t see.
Some people are content with the state of their health, while others are not. If we put aside the luck factor—the luck of, say, contracting an autoimmune disease or not—the thing that people who are content with their health have in common is an internal locus of control, a sense of agency that enables them to make sensible health-related personal decisions without a lot of outside help. They eat vegetables, work out, prioritize sleep, and have fun. Those who are not content with their health, meanwhile, lack this sense of agency. They have little confidence in their ability to steer their own way toward better health, so they search and search for a better diet, a newer exercise fad, a fancier wearable or app, forever seeking and serially disappointed, never realizing that the problem isn’t the diet or the workout or whatever else but their own inability to self-regulate. Biohacking culture preys on this weakness and amplifies it with the same demonic effectiveness that smartphone apps hijack brain chemistry.
I liken biohacking addicts—the type who never miss an episode of Huberman and try everything he recommends—to audience members at motivational speaking events. Just as motivational speakers serve the hopelessly unmotivated, biohackers serve those who don’t have what it takes to manage their own health. If you need a motivational speaker to be motivated or a biohacker to be healthy, you’re a lost cause.
I hear it again from the peanut gallery: “But some biohacks really work!” And I say it again: That is beside the point. If you talk to a hoarder, they can give you a rational reason for holding onto every single item in their overstuffed home. It’s the underlying mentality compelling them to find a reason to hold onto everything that qualifies them as insane. A thousand biohacks do not add up to a healthy lifestyle, for who else but an unhealthy person would decide that nine hundred ninety-nine biohacks aren’t enough?
I’m not saying that no one should ever try a single biohack. I’m saying don’t go looking for biohacks, but focus instead on cultivating an internal locus of control by mastering the basics and by taking your own health advice ahead of all others’. The exceptions are difficult-to-treat conditions where a more open and experimental approach is warranted. In my own twenty-seven-month-long struggle with long covid I’ve tried a handful of biohacks, including transcranial direct current stimulation, vagus nerve stimulation, and hydrogenated water.
Even in these cases, though, one needs to be careful. I’ve known a number of fellow long haulers who frantically tried everything they could get their hands on in a desperate effort to get better. Not only did these folks not get better, but their experience of long covid was far more miserable than my own, at least psychologically. Determined not to go down that path, I rejected a dozen suggested biohacks for each one I tried. And I’m happy to say I’m doing better lately, no thanks to the biohacks, which did me about as much good as watching the first half of The Matrix, but thanks rather to a combination of listening to my body and respecting its ever-changing limits, identifying environmental stimuli (social interaction, immersion in nature) that took me outside of my suffering, and selective reliance on modern medicine (namely Mirtazapine for insomnia, Prozac for neuroinflammation). In short, I’m doing better lately because I don’t listen to Andrew Huberman’s podcast.