These Headphones Can Get You High

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Yesterday I was lucky enough to score a seat on the M train on my ride home from work, a remarkably rare rush-hour occurrence that meant I could forego having my face pressed into business men’s armpits and relax with my own thoughts instead. I took advantage of my B.O.-free accommodations by popping in my earbuds and tuning into some Zeppelin.

Ten minutes later, the train emerged from the Essex Street underground to cross over the East River, and with Robert Plant wailing in my ears, I slipped off into an easy blissed-out daydream. When I came back to my senses, I had to do a double-take. I had been so engrossed in the music that I’d taken the train not one, not two, but five stops too far.

It took nothing more than an average pair of headphones and an exceptional song to send me straight into a contented trance. But what if your earbuds could actually affect your body in such a way that you felt high every time you listened to your music?

Boca Raton-based start-up Nervana has designed a set of headphones that purport to do just that. By pulsing faint electrical frequencies through the ear canal, the earbuds stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the brain’s pleasure center, physically inducing a natural high. The company (whose founding team is comprised entirely of medical professionals) unveiled the earbuds at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

In principle, the headphones should have the same mood-enhancing effect as exercise, or sex, or any other pleasurable activity that gives you a good kick in the dopamine. Users can synchronize the electrical pulses to their own music, or they opt for an “ambient mode” that responds to their environment.

“Taking something that basically poisons our bodies can be deadly,” said co-founder Dr. Daniel Cartledge, “but Nervana can enhance the pleasure of music without any drugs. I think this could add great entertainment value to music festivals.”

Other devices that stimulate the vagus nerve are used to treat epilepsy or depression, but they are surgically implanted rather than worn and removed. Whether or not a wearable like Nervana can truly affect neural activity in a similar manner remains open for debate.

Those who have tried the earbuds report pleasant sensations that arose during use and positive attitudes that lingered afterwards. These experiences are subtle enough, however, that they could easily be attributed to the fact that sitting still and listening to music for 15 minutes will have a calming effect on anybody.

“I felt the electricity go into my arm, and everything was tingling there, but the best moment for me was afterwards when I finished and stood up,” said Agustina, who tested the Nervana earbuds at the 2016 CES. “I felt like I reached a personal high point. I couldn’t stop smiling or laughing… For about five minutes, my happiness level was a 10 out of 10. Then it got foggier, but I was still unusually happy for about an hour.”

As Nervana’s founders have no way of gathering quantifiable data on dopamine levels in users’ brains, their understanding of the device’s efficiency depends largely on personal testimony. If you’re interested in trying the headphones for yourself, you can pre-order them on the company’s website for $299.