I Got High on Electric Earbuds! Kind Of...

Nervana headphones deliver electrical pulses designed to stimulate the vagus nerve and alter brain chemistry – and we tried them out.

When the prototype headphone device known as Nervana made the rounds at last year's Consumer Electronics Show, it generated quite a buzz.

Billed as a kind of next-generation listening device, Nervana is a wallet-sized battery-powered wearable that pairs with your smartphone or other mobile music player. Plug your phone into the unit, and the unit into your ear, and Nervana will deliver tiny pulses of electricity - timed to the beat of the music - directly into your skull.

The idea is to stimulate the vagus nerve, located in the general vicinity of the ear canal, which in turn triggers the release of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, according to Nervana's designers. If all goes well, listening sessions with the device will generate feelings of calmness and relaxation, similar to the effects of yoga or meditation.

The Nervana team has a good deal of medical and technical data to back up the claim. Based in Florida, Nervana LLC was founded by two physicians along with an electrical engineer and a nurse. Check out the website and you'll find very thorough FAQs, video guides, research briefs and background information on vagus nerve stimulation, which has been used as a therapeutic treatment for conditions including epilepsy, depression and PTSD.

In regard to legal and medical due diligence, the company appears to have been thorough and transparent with product development. The Nervana device isn't a gimmick, and priced at $289, it's squarely aimed at the high end of the consumer market. The designers believe they've built a better mousetrap and found a way to deliver the benefits of non-surgical vagus stimulation to people. Nothing wrong with that, but the $289 question is: Does it work?

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Over the past 10 days, I've been testing a finalized Nervana unit in various modes and circumstances, and the short answer is: Kind of. Sometimes. This appraisal may seem cryptic, but it's really the most accurate assessment I can give. While I didn't get the effects I was expecting, it's clear that when Nervana was plugged into my ear, there was something going on.

The Nervana setup has three main components: The generator, powered by a 9-volt battery; a curly connector cable that plugs into your phone; and the headphones, which carry both sound and electrical pulses to your ear.

I had no trouble assembling these, but I was surprised to see a fourth component: a small cylindrical spray bottle. While it's not strictly necessary, the Nervana designers recommend spraying a saline solution on the earbuds to facilitate electrical connection. An array of different sized earbuds are provided - music is piped to both ears, but the electrical charge only goes to the left ear.

A dial on the generator controls the intensity of the electrical pulse, which spikes along with the beat of the music. I had to crank up the dial quite a bit before I felt anything. The sensation is a bit uncomfortable at first, but certainly not painful. It's a buzzy tactile tingling that can also feel a little itchy.

I listened to various kinds of music with the Nervana device over the course of a week, in sessions of 30-45 minutes. The pulse sensation is more noticeable in music with a hard beat, like hip-hop, or with a sustained soft-loud dynamic. For the record, I got the best results with the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, the Pixies and, naturally, Nirvana. Hey, what can I say - I heart the 1990s.

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I also used the device several times on the "Formula" setting, which sends timed electrical pulses regardless of audio input. It worked nicely with online streaming radio broadcasts of the MLB baseball playoffs.

While I never felt anything approaching a blissful high, I would estimate that about half of my listening sessions produced a discernible sense of relative relaxation, which lasted more than an hour after removing the earbuds. It was a very mild effect, at best, and it's impossible to say for sure whether the sensation came from the nerve stimulation, or the music, or the baseball. (The Giants loss to the Cubs was not relaxing.) The closest analog for the sensation, for me, is the feeling of mental relaxation after a long walk.

The Nervana designers have been clear in their promotions that "individual results may vary," as the old adage goes. You can read all about their user tests here. Ami Brannon, CEO and co-founder of Nervana, said that their internal data suggest Nervana can produce a wide range of effects.

"Just as our bodies are unique in their own way, everyone's Nervana experience is different," she said. "Results can differ based on your state of mind at the time of use. Users have described feeling a calm, relaxed sensation that allows them to take deeper breaths, tolerate chaos and focus more."

Nervana is currently on sale through the company website, just in time for the gift-giving season. Because, after all, nothing evokes the holiday spirit like stimulating your vagus nerve and firing electric pulses into your skull. Just like grandma used to say.

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