What Is Biohacking?

We delve into the trendy concept of biohacking (aka "DIY biology").


So since tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, a time when food, diet, and well-being are on many people’s minds, we thought it would be a good time to address a fascinating topic: biohacking —known fondly to some as “DIY biology”. So just what is biohacking? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different explanation of what it is or what it could be. Broadly, it’s an attempt to manipulate your brain and body in order to optimize performance, outside the realm of traditional medicine. 

As Vox has reported, biohacking is an extremely broad and amorphous term that can cover a huge range of activities, from tracking your own sleep and diet to changing your own biology by pumping a younger person’s blood into your veins in the hope that it’ll fight aging. Some biohackers have science PhDs; others are complete amateurs. And their ways of trying to “hack” biology are as diverse as they are.

Certain kinds of biohacking go far beyond traditional medicine, while other kinds bleed into it. Plenty of age-old techniques — such as meditation and fasting — can be considered a basic type of biohacking. So can going to a spin class or taking antidepressants.

What differentiates biohacking is arguably not that it’s a different genre of activity but that the activities are undertaken with a particular mindset. The underlying philosophy is that we don’t need to accept our bodies’ shortcomings — we can engineer our way past them using a range of high- and low-tech solutions. And we don’t necessarily need to wait for a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, like we do with traditional medicine. We can start to transform our lives right now.

It can be tricky to understand the different types of hacks, what exactly differentiates them from traditional medicine, and how safe — or legal — they are.

The type of biohackers currently gaining the most notoriety are the ones who experiment on their own bodies with the hope of boosting their physical and cognitive performance — outside of traditional lab spaces and institutions. They form one branch of transhumanism, a movement that holds that human beings can and should use technology to augment and evolve our species.

As biohacking starts to appear more often in headlines — and, recently, in a Netflix series called Unnatural Selection — it’s worth getting into some of the fundamentals.

Dave Asprey, a biohacker who created the supplement company called Bulletproof has stated that biohacking is “the art and science of changing the environment around you and inside you so that you have full control over your own biology.” And he’s very willing to experiment on his own body: he has stem cells injected into his joints, takes dozens of supplements daily, bathes in infrared light, and much more. It’s all part of his quest to live to be at least 180.

One word Asprey likes to use a lot is “control,” and that kind of language is typical of many biohackers, who often talk about “optimizing” and “upgrading” their minds and bodies.

As mentioned, some of their techniques for achieving that are things people have been doing for centuries, like meditation and intermittent fasting. Both of those are part of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s routine, which he detailed in a podcast interview. Dorsey kicks off each morning with an ice bath before walking the 5 miles to the Twitter HQ. He tries to do two hours of meditation a day, eats only dinner on weekdays, and eats nothing at all on weekends. 

Some critics worry that such dietary habits sound a bit like an eating disorder, or that they might unintentionally influence others to develop an eating disorder. But I think it comes down to being in control and doing what makes your mind and body feel better. A disorder is differentiated in that control is lost, and I think what is healthy for one person could look a lot like a compulsion or disorder to another. It really comes down to the individual.

On a really basic level, biohacking comes down to something we can all relate to: the desire to feel better — and to see just how far we can push ourselves. That desire comes in a range of flavors. Some people just want to not be sick anymore. Others want to become as smart and strong as they possibly can. An even more ambitious crowd wants to be as smart and strong as possible for as long as possible — in other words, they want to radically extend their life span.

These goals have a way of escalating. Once you’ve determined (or think you’ve determined) that there are concrete “hacks” you can use by yourself right now to go from sick to healthy, or healthy to enhanced, you start to think: Well, why stop there? Why not shoot for peak performance? Why not try to live forever? What starts as a simple wish to be free from pain can snowball into a never-ending journey of self-improvement.

But there are plenty of very justified reasons for getting into biohacking.

For example, Josiah Zayner, the biohacker who once injected himself with CRISPR DNA, has had health problems for years, and some of his biohacking pursuits have been explicit attempts to cure himself. But he’s also motivated in large part by frustration. Like some other biohackers with an anti-establishment streak, he’s irritated by federal officials’ purported sluggishness in greenlighting all sorts of medical treatments. In the U.S., it can take 10 years for a new drug to be developed and approved; for people with serious health conditions, that wait time can feel excruciatingly long. 

Zayner claims that’s part of why he wants to democratize science and empower people to experiment on themselves. Biohacking gives people the chance to take back control over their health and longevity. And the biohacking community also offers just that: community. It gives people a chance to explore unconventional ideas in a non-hierarchical setting, and to rebrand the feeling of being outside the norm into a cool identity. And I think that’s something worthwhile.

The questions over the ethics and safety of biohacking will likely not be completely resolved anytime soon but in the meantime I think it’s worth considering the potential benefits it offers people who just want to feel a little bit more in control of their own health.


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