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This is the second part of a two-part series on biohacking. Read part one here.

Along with correcting the myth that biohacking is a single movement, Lorrimar also hopes her team’s research can push back against the characterization that all biohackers are “self-interested, materialistic, or reductionist.” 

This self-interested stereotype isn’t limited to biohackers; it extends across the spectrum of human enhancement efforts. For example, there’s also an assumption that transhumanists are fundamentally self-serving and elitist, concerned with bettering the individual at the expense of the collective. Tracy J. Trothen, an ethicist who studies human enhancement technologies and spiritual health, says she worries about the lack of nuance in public discourse. “One thing that I do get concerned about is that, just like acknowledging and realizing the great diversity within religious and faith traditions, there’s also great diversity within transhumanism.” While most transhumanists focus primarily on their own radical life extension, there are strands of the movement that seek to alleviate suffering and pain for all people. Trothen points to the Buddhist transhumanist thinker James Hughes. “[His] belief is that once we get a technology that will benefit anyone, sooner rather than later it will become more accessible—and that if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be created.”

In the case of biohacking, DIY body augmentation can certainly be materialistic, concerned mostly with aesthetics or personal improvement. But many people who follow these practices are motivated by a vision of open science and equal access to innovation. “There’s a sense of building a better world that is really contrasted with that futurist, transhumanism strand,” Lorrimar says. Transhumanism seeks to abandon this world, human bodies included, in search of something better. “Whereas the DIY Grinder culture is much more turned towards world renewal: How do we enhance in a way that’s not self-interested and individualistic, but actually does sort of some kind of common good?”

Lorrimar points to projects like engineering an artificial pancreas, an effort motivated by the fact that insulin is expensive and prohibitive to obtain. There are political motivations at play in this flavor of biohacking, a recognition of failings in the current healthcare system. “[It’s a] very counter-sovereign, undermine-Big-Pharma kind of thing.” Lorrimar sees this version of biohacking as a quest for creative, sustainable alternatives to failing political and social systems.

What makes biohacking self-serving or noble, materialistic or altruistic, lies in the motivations. People pursue human enhancement for all sorts of reasons. “Is this something that people see as something they’re doing in community for the benefit of the community?” Lorrimar asks. “Or is it just, ‘I want to enhance my productivity, my functionality, so I can be more productive, so I can make more money, so I can enjoy more good things, and who cares what anyone else is doing?’” 

What differentiates the practices is the impulse behind them. And in some cases, this impulse may be religious in nature—a longing for connection to something greater than oneself.

Religion and technology’s tangled roots

Travel back as far as humanity’s beginnings and you’ll find people trying to improve their human condition. Religion and technology have danced together for centuries. Historian David F. Noble argued that humanity’s quest for transcendence spurred on technological advances. And Lorrimar points out how Christianity in particular continues to influence the human augmentation movement, whether or not people realize it. “There’s a long, complicated, tangled history of how the Protestant work ethic is really embedded in Silicon Valley culture,” she says. “This idea of virtue being bound up in the body and what the body looks like and what the body can do, I think, has religious roots.” 

But Lorrimar’s study is less interested in the theoretical links between religion and biohacking and more interested in what compels ordinary people to pursue sometimes-extreme measures to alter their own biology. Could these kinds of impulses be considered spiritual? And if so, how do they manifest differently depending on the types of biohacking—wellness optimization, spirit tech, or “grinding”—that people are drawn to?

Organized religion is fast declining in the United States and across the Western world. This means that many people who have left traditional religion are looking elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment, community, and belonging. In today’s world, spiritual yearning and fulfillment take new shapes outside of a church sanctuary. And if people have genuinely spiritual yearnings that can also be genuinely fulfilled outside of traditional religion, then biohacking might just be an avenue for people to make sense of life and meaning. 

Lorrimar’s collaborator on the study is Dr. Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University in England. Bullivant is also the author of Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America. He studies the experience of people who have de-converted from traditional religion, and how they make sense of life in the wake of having had a religious life. Bullivant says that the decline of traditional religion can mean three things: first, that many people no longer feel the need for spiritual fulfillment; second, that people still crave transcendent experiences but are spiritually unfulfilled; or third, that people are now finding spiritual fulfillment outside of religion. “In truth, I suspect all three categories are true to some extent,” says Bullivant. “We know from previous research that spiritually-inclined nones find fulfillment in all sorts of things—family, nature, various religious practices (even if they don’t themselves believe or identify religiously), scientific inquiry, self-improvement, sports, exercise, communities.”

Through his writing and research, he’s interviewed many non-religious people who show “keen interests” in human enhancement of some kind or another, as well as many “who actively engage in practices like mindfulness or yoga, which certainly can be part of a ‘biohacker’s toolkit,’ and would describe themselves as spiritual.” To Bullivant, this makes biohacking a field that is ripe for spiritual investigation.

Spiritual biohacks as a path to transcendence

Ethicist Tracy J. Trothen thinks certain biohacking practices have the potential to offer mystical experiences akin to religion. “For example, we’re seeing renewed research efforts into the use of psychedelics to help people to access transcendent experiences, and to be in more touch with their spiritualities.” She cites research showing that psychedelics administered under certain conditions can help people heal from PTSD and assist those struggling with existential angst at the end of life. “It’s possible that psychedelics can help us to access a part of ourselves—or a part of the universe, depending on how you understand it—that is spiritual in some way.”

Even religion and faith-oriented chatbots can be a form of spiritual enhancement. “It may be that some of our spiritual disciplines can be enhanced through Zoom, through the internet, through really simple interventions,” Trothen adds. As for more obvious forms of spiritual biohacking, she points to the “God helmet,” a piece of technology designed to stimulate parts of the brain to put humans in touch with the divine.

All of these practices and technologies fall under the umbrella of “Spirit Tech,where spiritual seeking meets high-tech entrepreneurism. Spirit tech is shorthand for forms of technology that enhance human connection to the divine and deepen spiritual experiences. Churches that use ayahuasca as their sacrament? Spirit tech. The God helmet? Spirit tech. Wearables that enhance access to meditative states? Yep—that’s spirit tech too.

Of biohacking’s diverse expressions, Lorrimar predicts that this genre of biohacking will show the strongest correlation to both spiritual longing and its fulfillment. But she also hypothesizes that it won’t be the only one. “I think the more surprising [result of the study] might be that we’ll find that a lot of the DIY body modification … will tend to experience a sense of fulfillment that we could reasonably describe as spiritual.” The team predicts that some biohackers experience both genuine spiritual longing and its fulfillment through biohacking practices and the movement’s sense of community.

Above all, Lorrimar hopes to offer a more nuanced understanding of what biohacking practices and communities mean to people, “rather than just dismissing the whole of biohacking as self-interested and materialistic.” If the researchers can understand what drives people to participate in these practices, they may also begin to see what needs are being met—from the physical health optimization to a sense of spiritual belonging. And they might also learn where biohackers are still left yearning for a connection to something greater than themselves.