What is a biohacker, exactly? Part of the answer is in the word itself. Hacking your biology, meaning putting science and experience into action in order to make you a better you. We call it biohacking instead of bioimproving for a reason. Hacking refers to high efficiency fixes, meaning you get maximum payoff for your efforts. Hacks might be workarounds or fixes that short circuit problems or it may be a fix to one thing that pays off in multiple areas. Hacks employ ideas that are often contrary to the prevailing wisdom making biohacking a sort of subculture.
Biohackers often want to improve their physical strength and endurance, their cognitive performance, their metabolism or their immune system, but biohacking is not limited to these areas. You can target any part of your biology that, for you, it is important to improve. Biohacking uses, among other things, foods (restricting or adding certain foods), nootropics or natural brain boosters such as adaptogenic tea blends, exercise and environment (sunshine, cold exposure) as tools to make biological changes. An evolutionary framework helps identify what strategies a biohacker might use by comparing our inherited Pleistocene (Ice age) biology to modern day conditions.
That covers a good starting point definition, a practical one, but one that is not very specific, and that is because biohacking isn’t a rigid practice. This is why, in part, biohacking is an art and not just a science. It can’t be defined one way or practiced one way. Instead biohacking is a set of values that empower the biohacker to say, “I can hack my biology to improve myself.” Here are some of those values.
If you believe the characteristics and qualities that make you, you can be changed and improved then you have a growth mindset. As opposed to a fixed mindset which would consider positive changes impossible or nearly so. Most everyone recognizes a growth mindset on something simple and straightforward like lifting weights. Lift weights - get stronger. Biohacking seeks to use a growth mindset in any and all areas of health, wellness and productivity. This is particularly true with regards to learning, memory and cognitive function, and the evidence of the humans brains plasticity throughout life (once thought to be fixed after childhood) vindicates the biohackers’ efforts.
A biohacker needs feedback to know if their hacks are working. They need input to know if their memory, emotional reactivity, energy levels or whatever they are hacking is responding. To tap into this feedback one needs an intimate mind-body connection. Biohacking is all about improvements but also about targeting your weaknesses. Do tomatoes make you knee sore? Do you become a jerk at 4:00 every afternoon? Do you sleep terribly after eating garlic? A high level is self-awareness is needed to uncover your weakness so you can eliminate or reduce them. This is one reason mindfulness and meditative practices are powerful tools for biohackers.
Biohackers don’t rely on one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, they tweak, refine and adjust until they get the most benefit for their effort. This might mean using low tech strategies like mindful awareness and journaling or high tech gadgets. Biohacking doesn’t have to be tech dependent but the constantly improving consumer devices such smart phones, bluetooth heart monitors and the various sleep and activity trackers are powerful biohacking tools. These devices allow biohackers to quantify themselves by collecting feedback data from the devices and then getting nerdy with it. This is closely related to the concept called N = 1. This is a reference to the number of subjects in an experiment. For the biohacker’s self experimentation N equals just one.
Hacks can occasionally result in fast, profound improvements in health and wellness. For example, someone with gluten sensitivity may have significant improvement in their health after they omit the offender from their diet. Such radical changes don’t occur with every hack. More often it is an ongoing trial and error process. Biohacking is not about perfection, instead it is about moving the needle. It’s about improvements that carry forward to more improvements. It’s about a cycle from a hack, to seeing the result and then adjusting. Making improvements often increment by increment.
Biohacking is a fluid concept and will continue to change with improvements in technology, information and as the ranks of people who embrace the idea that self-improvement is a central life pursuit grows.
What do you want to improve? Your workout recovery times or sleep quality or memory. Whatever it is that’s important to you - start hacking. You can do it.
Kempermann, G. (2015). Adult Neurogenesis: An Evolutionary Perspective. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, 8(2). doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a018986