Sometimes, people think of a problem that other people have, and they think, “Hey, I know how to fix that!”  The problem is that a lot of these people are wrong.  Some of them genuinely think they have a solution, but are to stupid to realize they’re wrong, and some of them have a huge vested interest in the product and are too proud to admit that it doesn’t fucking work, and some of them are malicious motherfuckers who want to suck your wallet dry.  I don’t know which kind this is.

The Valkee is a device intended to treat seasonal depression, which is a real thing.  So we’re off to a good start.  Here’s what it looks like.

Now, I know it looks like earbuds, and you’re right in assuming that those things go in your ears.  But they don’t make sound, they make light.  They’re just LEDs like you see in virtually any headlamp, computer display, or any piece of consumer electronics with any kind of little light in it at all really.  Hopefully, your skepticism is mounting right about now.

Valkee claims to work on the following principle:
The brain has photosensitive areas that react differently to the lack of light, resulting in depression and mood conditions. These areas can be cured with bright light. Surprisingly our eyes are not the most effective route to deliver light to the brain: the ear canal, where the skull at its thinnest, is the most effective route to direct light to where it is needed.
Okay, that’s a lot to take apart.  Let’s look at the first claim first.  Does the brain actually have photosensitive areas?  Now, I have the fantastic advantage, living in the 21st century with fast internet, of having access to basically all the scientific research that’s ever been done.  And then everything that everyone wrote about it, and then everything that everyone ever wrote about the people that originally wrote about the research and so on.  I did a little digging, and found not one single thing to indicate that the brain has regions that are sensitive to light.  It kind of makes sense, really, seeing as how the brain never sees light.  It lives in the opaque container known as your skull, hopefully never seeing the light of day.  And if it does, you have serious issues.
Next comes the idea that the skull is at its thinnest in the ear canals.  Also false.  It’s thinnest at the temples, just behind the outer corners of your eyebrows, which is why every schoolchild is instructed to not get kicked there if possible.  Yes, there’s skin over the temples, but there’s all kinds of crap between bone and air in the inside of your ears too, so why don’t we just shine light on the sides of our heads?  Valkee has tactfully ignored this issue, probably because it would reduce their product to a piece of paper that says “maybe don’t be in the dark ALL the time.”

Shockingly enough, though, there are plenty of people out there with lots of money and the scientific knowledge of, roughly, an eggplant, so Valkee’s got tons of funding.

But even stupid people need some kind of reassurance, so presumably at some point between eating jewelry and bathing in truffle oil (I’m not exactly sure how rich people spend their time), they stopped to turn to the makers of Valkee and ask, “Does it work?”

What? Yes. Go away.

Luckily, Valkee reassures us that they have indeed produced results.  Their website states:

The VALKEE bright light headset has been researched in a series of clinical tests by the University of Oulu. In a recent clinical trial, 25 severely depressed patients were treated with a daily dose of 8-12 minutes of light with the VALKEE bright light headset. Over a period of four weeks nine patient out of ten experienced total relief of symptoms, which is a revolutionary result.  Currently VALKEE is being studied for seasonal affective disorder in open and placebo-controlled studies. In addition, the research is being conducted for other depression types.

My goodness!  Nine out of ten patients reported total relief of symptoms, that is indeed a result that can only be described as revolutionary!  And I’m sure that those results have been replicated hundreds of…oh they haven’t been replicated at all?  Well that’s not especially incriminating, I’ll just take a look at the original…oh I’m not allowed to see the previous study?  Not at all?  I thought all those journals were pub…oh it’s been rejected by every journal you’ve submitted it to.  Incidentally, how did you get a number of nine out of ten with twenty-five patients?  Twenty-two and a half of them reported total relief?  Did one person report half of a relief?  Did one of his earbuds fall out?  Did only half of his face smile?  I’m becoming more skeptical.

For the uninformed, this is what skepticism looks like.

I started to do some digging, seeing as how this research is supposed to be three years old, and found a fascinating comment thread here.  In it, some very well-reasoned people ask calm and reasonable questions (they’re Finnish; I don’t think they’ve learned sarcasm yet) and they are all answered by a nice man—I think—named Timo Ahopelto.  Let’s see what Timo has to say.

Ok, that’s not exactly helpful.  Kristoffer basically says I think this won’t work, and here’s a bunch of really good reasons why I think that, and also are there any studies, and Timo answers with “new things can be found,” bracketed by winky faces.  That’s not evidence, Timo.  And it doesn’t answer the question.  Let’s keep going.

Ok, do you not understand what’s happening here?  The whole discussion thing?  Psoriasis is helped by UV light because the UV kills the autoimmune reaction.  Literally.  Depression is not caused by inflammation inside your earholes.  And please stop it with the winky faces.

At this point, another commenter chimes in to point out that Valkee has not been double-blind tested, or if it has then they’re not telling anyone, which is shady regardless.  Just as an aside, testing this thing would be the EASIEST CLINICAL TRIAL IN THE WORLD.  Give it to a bunch of people, see if they notice a difference, but before you start make sure that half of the units don’t actually turn on.  Done.  Anyway, Timo’s not going to take that lying down.  He retaliates:

Valkee is medical device approved, so there are studies. The question is then when will they be published. 😉 If Valkee would be placebo, it would be a miracle to have in practice 100 percent placebo effecxt. 😉

I don’t know how things work in Scandinavia, but here all you’d have to do is put one of those disclaimer stickers on it somewhere in font that makes birds of prey reach for their reading glasses and you’re free and clear.

Something like this ought to do it.

In fact, alternative medicine has been given a pass so lenient that as long as the product isn’t going to kill you—like if it’s, say, a tiny flashlight on a string—you can sell it.  I might also suggest that if you have medical evidence to support this product, you publish it.  This thing costs three hundred bucks, so “I lost my homework but I swear I did it and got everything right” isn’t going to cut it.

And seriously, cut it out with the winky faces.  They make you seem condescending and dickish.

Timo’s testimony goes seriously downhill from here.  When asked what he means by “approved,” he reassures us that Valkee has the data to back it up but they can’t show us because of the publication schedules for the journals, which apparently plan their articles three years in advance.  Yeah, I’ll call bullshit.  Kristoffer comes back to point out that you can’t just say that the brain is photosensitive without demonstrating that scientifically, and Timo comes back with some crazy story about how pigeons still have circadian rhythms when you cut their eyeballs out.  I tried for hours to find a record of that study and failed, possibly because even the Nazis would reject that as unethical, which leads me to believe that Timo has been mutilating pigeons in his own backyard to prove a point.  It is worth pointing out that blind mice still have circadian rhythms, but they’re what’s called “free-running,” which means that they’re not tied to actual light cycles.

But what’s left of Timo’s credibility crumbles away when he says (still with the FUCKING winky faces) that Kristoffer carries the burden of proof to prove that the brain is not sensitive to light.  That is not how that works.  If I tell you that unicorns don’t exist, it is not my responsibility to look every single place on Earth to make sure.  If I tell you that trees can’t feel pain, it is not my responsibility to kick a whole bunch of them and listen for whimpering noises.

So why is Timo trying so damn hard to defend Valkee?  A quick Google search turns up a LinkedIn profile for one Timo Ahopelto who serves as the cofounder for a company called Lifeline Ventures, which OH HEY has invested over half a million dollars in Valkee.

And a BILLION winky faces

The Bottom Line:
Valkee is a device based on scientific principles that have never been replicated, supported by studies that mysteriously have not been published and defended by a man who is either a pathological liar or likes to stab small birds in the face.  All for the price of a small television.

Maybe you should hold off.

17 Thoughts

  1. Well, the pineal gland is a structure in the brain that recieves signals from the optic nerve telling it when light is being percieved. The pineal gland secretes the hormone melatonin, which regulates our wake/sleep cycles. So, there is a brain structure that responds to light, just not directly. It is located straight back between your eyeballs, which is no where near the internal acoustic meatus, which is where the light would enter into the brain, but not really. The light would enter the inner ear and make its way to the cochlea, which senses movement, not light. This machine really is ridiculous to someone who has taken basic anatomy and physiology. You don't have to conduct expensive research to know this is not going to work.

  2. So to sum up, there is no structure in the brain that responds directly to light (as opposed to the nerve signals from some other thing that responds to light, like your eyes).

    And as to your final sentence, this is what baffles me. I am not a biologist. I have taken neither basic anatomy nor physiology, and I STILL know this isn't going to work. It staggers me how people still buy into shit like this, when it's SO CLEARLY horseshit.

  3. It is really really funny that people who have never used Valkee are the biggest critics.

    You guys sound like people claiming that the world cannot be anything else than flat.

    No-one prior to Valkee has in fact studied this. New things can be found.

    And I must say that – having tried Valkee – it helps both to jetlag and SAD for me personally.

  4. Valkee just simply works for my winter blues.

    The writer of this article should really try them as I have heard that bright light also works for other mental disorders. 😉

  5. Safe to assume that this is Timo, which is just pathetic. You've abjectly failed to address any of the points I made.

    1) Yes, new things can be found, but that doesn't mean you can just make shit up and defend it with that. There needs to be evidence, like I don't know, a blinded study, and Valkee has never released any scientific evidence, just unsupported claims.

    2) Of course the people who don't use it are the biggest critics. No one who's critical of it and doesn't believe it works (a totally fair position, since there's no reason to believe it) would ever use it.

    3) Personal experience is not evidence. What you think you've experienced is completely irrelevant to the actual medical evidence that something works. The placebo effect is powerful and poorly understood, but it doesn't mean that there is anything really going on, and to claim otherwise is dishonest at best and fraudulent at worst.

    All I'm saying is that Valkee bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that their product (YOUR product) is more than just smoke and mirrors, and they haven't offered any evidence at all that it is. Up against that is the knowledge that there has never been evidence of light receptors in the brain other than in the eyes.

    And that dig at the end? Fucking pathetic. I'm not the one dumping money into this.

  6. Hey can any of you enlightened souls who have one of these Valkee thingies tell me how bright the light is, so I can do down to Radio Shack and get some LEDs for a few bucks and see if the theory works?

    Funny how the placebo effect is often so closely correlated to price. Or is it really a “don't want to admit I've been taken” effect?!

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