Humans cannot be hacked

“Hack your vagus nerve!” claims the latest and most unintentionally ironic social media headline to trigger my annoyance. Humans cannot be hacked. To imply that they can, whether by hacking their reward systems or nervous systems or biological functions or Enneagram types is not helpful.

humans cannot be hacked. this quote from When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate backs me up on this.
Quote I doodled while listening to the book When The Body Says No by Gabor Mate.

What exactly are we trying to do here?

The definition of “hack” has evolved from “to cut with rough or heavy blows” to the modern usage of “use a computer to gain unauthorized access to data in a system” to “a strategy or technique for managing one’s time or activities more efficiently. ”

I know when people use the word “hack” they mean a useful shortcut, but the sound of the word carries its original sense of violence and violation. To me, that is an important clue.

Research shows the vagus nerve is involved in a wide range of bodily functions, and having poor vagal tone is associated with a variety of disease states. Poor vagal tone can mean your system is in a stressed fight/flight mode so often, it can’t easily return to a calm, happy place. Can threatening to hack yourself really bring true relaxation and healing? My intuition says no.

That said, I am a total geek when it comes to physiology and science. I love learning about how complex our bodies are – not so I can control it, but so I can bow down to it. Our bodies deserve reverence, not resentment. This is a good article on some of the ways we can explore our experience through the lens of the vagus nerve.

Don’t just hack – ask!

What all the hacks – and most of the good resources, even – miss, is the big question: WHY! They skip right from symptom to “cure” without looking at the underlying cause.

WHY are you breathing shallowly (or deeply)?

WHY are you tired (or wired)?

WHY are you not okay with your current state?


Forgive the all caps. That is a very crude way – a language hack, if you will – of getting my intensity across in print. If I could, I would whisper. Better yet, you can whisper to yourself:

Why is my intelligent body breathing this way?

Why do I want to feel differently than how I am actually feeling right now?

Why do I feel the way I feel?

Why do I think I need a hack to fix me?

Ask – and then listen for the answer. It might not come immediately, but when it does, your vagal tone will naturally improve because you will have gotten to the root of the issue. All the cold showers and breathing exercises in the world – as well as all the Enneagram books and quizzes – can’t help you if you won’t help yourself by listening to your own wisdom. Tuning yourself out causes stress – I know because I have many years of experience doing just that! That is why I feel so certain that humans cannot be hacked.

There’s a good reason humans cannot be hacked

With both the Enneagram and the vagus nerve, there isn’t a “right” way. It is a sign of health to be able to shift states appropriately. Context matters! Sometimes we need to be assertive, other times passive. Sometimes we should run for our lives – but a lot of the time, we really aren’t in danger. Yet, since our culture holds certain states in high esteem and degrades others, we demand justification of ourselves if we aren’t in the “good” states. As if people truly are machines that should work endlessly without complaint.

We can care for ourselves and others when we pay attention to what we are experiencing in the current reality. Humans cannot be hacked. Let’s stop pretending that side-stepping what our bodies are trying to communicate is a desirable thing.

Pay attention. That’s all you can do.

In case that is all a bit too abstract, here is a simple example. For several days, I was aware of the possibility of coming down with a cold. There was a tickle in my throat and just a slight feeling of being off. We went camping. The feeling stayed with me, but I didn’t get sick. We came home and I went to bed practically as soon as the sun went down. I was more tired than normal, and I had jury duty the next day.

The getting sick feeling was stronger in the morning, but I overrode it. I had to go to jury duty. I did not want to reschedule. I shut down (unconsciously, but very obviously in retrospect). I repressed my coughs and sneezes in the courtroom. I went for a walk at lunch. I drank extra coffee to stay awake. I survived rush-hour traffic to make it home – and then I collapsed. I was sick.

blue sky and rocks at joshua tree national park
I love the rock formations at Joshua Tree NP.

This isn’t a “poor me, I shouldn’t have to do jury duty” story. I made a choice. I am happy with my choice. But our choices always have consequences.

Progress, not perfection

The old me would have continued to deny I was sick. I would have taken cold medicine to repress my symptoms and continue “functioning.” But I know better. I know the real cure is rest. So I drank tea and laid around listening to audio books.

I was sick for two days. Bummer. But – I used to have the same symptoms, “hack” my way through life, suffer terribly, all the while denying it, before finally going to a doctor and getting antibiotics. Two days of surrender is a bargain compared to three weeks of ickiness.

Humans cannot be hacked! We are complicated organisms requiring rest, care and love, in addition to work, thoughts and achievements. Hacks are just another way of intellectualizing, and thereby avoiding, that reality – unless you use them to dig deeper into what is true for you.

For anyone who is interested, here’s an Amazon affliate link to the book I listened to as I listened to my body and rested (thanks OC Library!), and the source of the above doodle quote.

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