Thync Relax: 10 days with the new "neuroscience" wearable
The original Thync was one of the most eyebrow-raising wearables of 2015. Sending electrical currents through your head to essentially zap your brain into either a calmer or more-energized mood, we saw it as a potential preview of a future where tech can replace drugs. While the new follow-up, Thync Relax, may be wrapped in a more consumer-friendly package, our experience with a beta version gave us plenty to be skeptical about.
Thync Relax has a more consumer-friendly focus than its 2015 successor. You no longer have electrodes running from your temple to the back of your head, as both device and gel pads now attach to the base of your neck. This lets you wear the device discreetly, without drawing attention to yourself or eliciting strange looks or awkward questions. It also includes a compact carrying case, easy for throwing in a backpack or purse.
The company says each pad now survives more uses, and my experience lined up with that. CEO Isy Goldwasser said this is due to people typically having fewer oils and chemicals on their lower neck areas than on their faces and (typically hair-covered) backs of heads.
Additionally, the company is shifting to a subscription-based business model. For a monthly fee, the firm will send you the Thync Relax device (or "Pod," in the company's marketing lingo) along with as many on-demand gel pad refills as you like. Provided the monthly cost is reasonable, that could help avert one of the original's flaws: the high costs of refilling its proprietary strips (which could last only a few uses each).
Using Thync Relax for the last 10 days, I also found it to be a calming experience. The electrical pulses sent into the back of my neck relaxed my neck muscles, and I perceived it as positively affecting my general mood. It's similar to how you'd feel getting a neck massage or running a hot shower on your neck.
From my vantage point, though, it veers away from the "digital drugs" experience I had with the original (while the company never claimed that's what its product was, that's what we found interesting about it). With the 1st-gen model I would get a buzzy, chilled-out feeling in my head that would linger for an hour or more after finishing a session: I found it somewhat akin to taking one hit of a mild strain of cannabis. The new model, though, feels more like getting a relaxing neck massage from a TENS unit.
To test those suspicions, I bought a US$40, standalone, two-electrode TENS device from a local retail store and placed both pads on the same lower-neck area as Thync Relax. I then tweaked the settings to find a pulse level with a similar strength to what I used with Thync Relax.
In this personal experiment, I perceived both devices to be exactly the same. The biggest difference was that you can better fine-tune the strength of Thync's pulsing; otherwise both the massage and relaxation effects felt identical.
Thync sent us this research that it claims proves the scientific effectiveness of this second-generation product. Note, though, that every study the company shared with us used the original model's placement (one electrode on temple, the other on either the neck or back of head), rather than the new model's placement (both electrodes on base of neck). I repeatedly asked the company for research specific to the new placement, but received none.
When questioned about this, Thync's current Chief Science Officer Sumon Pal (original CSO and co-founder Jamie Tyler left the company in early 2016) claimed the old research still applies to Thync Relax. According to Pal, "Edition One modulated cranial (trigeminal and vagal) and cervical nerves that feed into the reticular formation and nucleus of the solitary tract. Thync Relax focuses stimulation on cervical nerves specifically."
While I'm no neuroscience expert, logic dictates that you'll have an easier time selling a (supposedly) science-based product if you provide scientific research that focuses specifically on the model you're about to launch. The evidence the company provided asks customers to trust that the results of temple-to-neck electrode studies automatically apply to the new neck-to-neck electrode version – a leap we're not quite prepared to make.
Research about TENS units – even when intended for simple pain relief on the body – is far from rock-solid in the scientific community. While this 2015 study concluded that TENS units have "been shown to provide analgesia [inability to feel pain]," it also cautioned that "effective analgesia for chronic pain conditions may be limited by the development of tolerance to TENS."
We couldn't track down any recently-published scientific papers on TENS modulation with a mood-shifting focus, apart from Thync's own research on its 1st-gen model.
The beta Android app, which lets you choose your program and tweak the strength, was far from stable. Paired with a Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, the unit had frequent Bluetooth dropouts, which would abruptly stop the TENS program. Each time it did this (on average, I'd estimate once every three times I used it), I had to kill the app, re-pair with the module and start over.
When asked about the connection issues, a Thync PR representative said this was due to my using beta hardware and software, and emphasized that the iOS app wasn't having the same problems. In fairness, we did go into this extended demo with the understanding that we were handling a pre-release beta unit. On the other hand, there is historical precedent for concern: The original Thync's Android app had a buggy public launch in late 2015, with connection issues that temporarily rendered the $200 product unusable with Android phones.
Despite my qualms about the lack of scientific studies pointing specifically to this model, frustration in dealing with connection issues and belief that the effects are less profound this time, I still enjoyed using Thync Relax. A TENS unit massaging the base of my neck is a nice way to unwind: If you can look at the product strictly as consumer tech designed to chill you out, it can potentially do just that.
Just remember that, at least in my experience, Thync Relax's results were no different from any other TENS unit placed on the lower neck and set to light-to-moderate strength. There are many wired/standalone models you can find in the $20-40 range, and if a wireless and smartphone-connected TENS is what you seek, there are products like this $100 one, which has relatively cheap replacement pads and no monthly subscription fee.
The Thync Relax service, with new module and neck placement, is currently targeted for a Spring (Northern hemisphere) 2017 launch. The module, electrodes and unlimited pad refills will be included in a monthly fee, which has yet to be announced. You can sign up for more info at the company's website below.
Company page: Thync
- Buy 1st-generation Thync on Amazon