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The Problems with Bio-Hacking

More and more I hear people talking about the lengthening list of things that they need to do each day. Wake before or with the sun. The correct number of minutes of sunlight on their eyes. Coffee, but not too early or too much. Movement, correct type and length. Meditation, likely a specific style, length of time. Breath work. Cold shower/dunk/plunge. Connection with friends/partner/children. Detailed breakfast, often including a myriad of supplements (and check out the link provided so the peddler gets financial kick back for having introduced you to said supplements).

It's optimisation. When you follow this list of things, you will be healthy, happy, and successful.

Some people call it "hacking" or "bio-hacking".

The term hacking first showed up in the Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT.

HACK: 1) something done without constructive end; 2) a project under-taken on bad self-advice; 3) an entropy booster; 4) to produce, or attempt to produce, a hack. ~TMRC Dictionary, Peter R. Samson, June 1959
Robot made of parts duct taped together with wires hanging out the top.
Photo by Valentin Petkov on Unsplash

It's been suggested that the term came from the idea of hacking your way through the jungle with a machete.

I'm not sure how or when this became a term that we apply to ourselves, but I remember a good friend of mine describing to me his routines as he "bio-hacked" his health in about 2012. He was manipulating food intake, waking times, movement practices, light, water... to try to trick his body into better health, weight-loss, and out of depression.

(It didn't work.)

None of these practices in and of themselves are bad. There is "research" (some good, some less good) supporting many of them. And I'm not opposed to people finding the things that work best for them, that suit their constitution, personalities, gut tendencies, and other inclinations.

There's a problem, though. You are not a computer. You can't just zap your pram, do a quick de-frag, and be optimised for the day.

The thought of taking a machete to yourself to try to get through to health and well-being would be funny if it weren't such an accurate metaphor for what bio-hacking can be doing to people.

I suspect that the first popular bio-hack was the "diet". The first diet, according the the Farmer's Almanac, was that of William Banting, an English coffin-maker in the mid-1800s. It was low-carb and high protein (sound familiar?), and it was the only thing that helped him to lose weight. Of course, most diets don't work, or work long-term. The act of restricting calories doesn't get to the root of why we eat the way we do, and can eventually trash the metabolism, which means the weight is not only regained, but becomes harder to lose again.

(I won't go on about the many problems with diets, but if you want to dig into this subject I refer you to the podcast "Maintenance Phase" hosted by the fabulous Michael Hobbes and amazing Aubrey Gordon, and the book Intuitive Eating by Eveylyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, both of which are based in good science.)

What are we trying to accomplish with dieting, or other bio-hacking? What is the end goal, the ideal? Is that ideal even humanly possible — or possible for you as an individual? Or is it how a machine would live, or look, or behave? Is being more productive and more efficient what you really need to be happier?

You are a complex, multi-system, organism that is made up of soma and psyche — body and mind, or "bodymind" as some people like to refer to it. I didn't say brain, but mind. You mind isn't just located inside your skull, but includes sensations and experiences in other parts of the body, as well as your experience of the world around you, and interactions with other humans, animals, and nature. This term includes, as I'm using it here, your unconscious self, and maybe even a soul.

When we whittle things down to the physiology of our bodies, as if we are a model railroad, we miss out on the gloriousness of awe and wonder, the implications of memory and emotion, the nuances and subtlety of the differences in our bodies from one day to the next. It's a disconnection from nature, the seasons, the moon, and each other. And missing out on these things isn't just too bad. It can be the difference between actually being happy and healthy, or depressed and sick.

If you're following a detailed check list each day and it's working for you — fantastic! If you're trying to do all the things that you're "supposed" to do and it's not working for you, that is not your failure, but a sure sign that it's time to re-evaluate. Consider if that list is appropriate for you, or is this "a project under-taken on bad self-advice" (or bad influencer advice)?

Chatting with someone recently, she told me that she's setting the tone each day with a Tilley hat, a loud print shirt, comfy shoes, and walk to a local coffee shop. After having pursued many routes to happiness she seems to be finding it in simplicity, rest, listening to herself.

Instead of a to-do list each morning, perhaps a more powerful and productive practice would be a time of deep internal connection to see what is happening with yourself, to see what you need in that moment. That time might be simply a few moments before you open your eyes, not necessarily a 20-minute meditation, or even a walk to a coffee shop in a loud shirt. Rather than taking a machete to yourself in pursuit of ideal health and wellness, maybe we can let go of the idea that we are machines, of what we are told is perfection, and find happiness as we define it for ourselves.

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