Nervana’s headphones claim they can get you high by listening to music

Zap your brain's pleasure centre any time, anywhere

CES 2016 saw some pretty weird product reveals, from weather-predicting umbrellas to speakers featuring a floating UFO. Sometimes products are so weird, I’m unsure who would ever use them. Others seem to be genuinely great but I’m sceptical whether they actually work. Nervana falls into that category: the developers boldly claim their device will provide a runner’s high while you listen to music. Too good to be true?

According to the developers, Nervana is a system that lets you listen to music on your ordinary device (e.g. phone) but also provides electric nerve stimulation in pulses that match the beat of the music. The pulses in your ear canal triggers the vagus nerve to release dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals are used naturally by the pleasure and reward centres of the brain and are usually released during exercise and sex. Nervana promises to tap into that pleasure while you sit on the bus and listen to your favourite tunes. It’s a bold promise, that headphones will alter your brain chemistry.

The core of the Nervana system is a device referred to as the “generator”. It receives audio from your music device, generates the electrical pulses that match the beat of the music, and sends the music and signal to special headphones. These headphones make contact with your inner ear canal and apparently allow the signal to stimulate your vagus nerve, releasing the feel good chemicals. The system can work without music if you only want the electrical signal, but the developers claim it works better with music. A potentially neat feature is the ambient mode, which uses the sound around you rather than audio from your own music device. This would allow the system to deliver pulses that match the beat of a live performance you are attending, or make something like a Donald Trump speech feel vaguely pleasurable.

Does it actually work though? We really don’t know. Stimulating the vagus nerve with technology isn’t new but normally involves implants. The bold claim is that a regular consumer device can stimulate the nerve by sending electric signals through the ear canal. If it works, the technology might have medical applications as stimulation of the vagus nerve is already used in treatment for epilepsy, depression, and even severe cases of hiccups. We know the implants used in treatments work because they have to gain medical approval. Nervana won’t require the same approval because it’s a lifestyle device not intended for medical applications. This allows Nervana to skip FDA approval in the US (and MHRA here in the UK) so we’ll be seeing it on the market whether it works or not.

Nervana will be available for pre-order soon and ship in the Spring, though I strongly recommend waiting for reviews later in the year. Never underestimate the placebo effect. People will likely feel relaxed and happy when they first try Nervana, whether it works or not.

Main image © iStock/OlegSirenko